In spite of every physical and cultural trait I possess, I always wanted to be a surfer. I dreamed of that cool, chill, zen community embracing a city slicker like me, a fuzzy Italian New Yorker, and turning me into a child of the waves, dissolving my neuroses and striving in the foam. It seemed like one of those chicken-egg activities; do cool, fun, relaxed people like to surf, or does surfing produce cool, fun, relaxed people?
I booked a lesson that April with "Steve," owner of the HogFoot Surf Academy in Deal, NJ to find out. I figured one lesson couldn't hurt. Usually when I try a new thing, even something simple and undramatic, fear and doubt beat parallel paths with my curiosity and resolve. But in the run up to this particular activity, the former two weren't showing up at all. I just felt good, clean excitement and anticipation, untainted, uncomplicated. Until the night before the lesson.
I was out for a drink with a friend we'll call Jane, who warned "Be careful. I saw a report on The Today Show that first-time surfers have been accordioning their spines, and getting paralyzed." It happens, she said, "the first time you pop up [hop from lying prone to standing on the board] if you lack core strength." She said this as I used a celery stalk to evenly distribute bleu cheese across a buffalo wing. Core strength is not one of my preoccupations.
I thought about canceling, but the wheels were in motion, the lesson was paid for. I was going through with it. I woke at dawn, swallowed the fear, jumped in the car and turned on the radio; music would soothe. A news report informed me that jellyfish season had started the day prior. I turned the radio off.
In the lot, I met Steve and his girlfriend Tatiana, a dance instructor and photographer. We all shook hands and Tatiana said in a lovely Portuguese accent, "Chris, you will be a great surfer, you have the perfect body type." I've heard I have the perfect body type before, but almost always in reference to diabetes, so this was a happy surprise.
I'd begun to put thoughts of crushed spines and jellyfish out of my mind. The agita was almost totally dissipated. Then, Steve reminded me of another mortal threat: hypothermia.The water was 44 degrees, which he described as "not necessarily deadly." He presented me with a winter wetsuit and Lycra shirt, and told me they'd be super tight and form fitting. "It's gonna be tough to get this on the first time, mah dude," he said before offering some helpful pointers. 1) Recline the front seats, and blast the heat, and 2) Get your feet into the suit first, then leverage the rest of your body in. Then I added some of my own steps…
3) Instead of your shirt, take your pants and boxers off first, so when Steve comes back within a few seconds to check on you, he sees your penis.
4) Leave the Lycra shirt on the roof of the car, so everything is spread out and difficult to manage.
5) Once the wetsuit is halfway up your legs, decide you want to keep boxers on under the bathing suit for extra warmth. Undo everything to put them back on.
6) When Steve approaches to point out that the Lycra shirt is still on the roof, turn quickly, showing him your penis for a second time.
7) Once the wetsuit is on, seek Steve's aid in putting on your gloves and booties, like a toddler asking for help with swimmies.
When we got down to the sand, Steve wanted to practice some "pop-ups" before getting wet. An inner voice said "It's time. Ask him about The Today Show thing. Ask him about the jellyfish!" I ignored it and laid on the board, feeling sleek and agile in my black wetsuit, like a version of Batman filled with 30 percent ham.
"I apologize when people bump into me on the subway. It was unlikely I was going to punch a shark in the face."
Steve popped up with skill and finesse; I didn't hear any spine-telescoping. He made it look safe and easy. Then he said, "You might feel it in your back a little the first time. Nothing to worry about. OK—UP!"
I didn't move. My brain sent query letters to my legs, arms, and back, but they were summarily ignored. And then I understood: the fear was actually exquisite, and determined to have its day. Every time I tried to smother it, it came back stronger, and now I would not be surfing unless I paid it dark tribute by puking forth these idiot questions.
Predictably, he laughed each terror off without hesitation. "Think about how many people surf every day, man. It's one of the safest sports out there." He dismissed the spine-telescoping pandemic out of hand. He laughed off the jellyfish too, saying "These aren't Portuguese Man-o-War. These are nothing jellyfish. They've only seen a few sharks down in Asbury." I wasn't sure that was the most helpful response: "no jellyfish, just sharks." He told me if I happened upon a shark, to just punch it in the nose or gills. "You know that," he said.
I sure didn't. And it couldn't have mattered less. I apologize when people bump into me on the subway. It was unlikely I was going to punch a shark in the face.
Steve clapped my shoulder and led me into the water, where three-and-four foot waves broke in rhythmic procession. I popped up, and fell, and popped up, and fell, for the better part of 90 minutes. Eventually, by the grace of some miracle (and a nine foot board), I popped up, stayed up, and rode a wave into shore, goofy grin fastened to my face like a barnacle.
I surfed happily (though badly) a few times after. But eventually I found myself unwilling to face another winter wetsuit. Instead I started jogging again. Sweet, mundane, banal jogging. I knew it wasn't likely to offer some quasi-religious exaltation or change me in any way, but at least it presented no danger of a collapsed spine or death by sea beast. Besides, I'd missed jogging.
I popped in my earbuds, waved to a neighbor, trotted a calm and undramatic quarter mile, misjudged a curb, and blew my knee out.
Not All Surfers Are Cool and Fun and Mellow and I Am Proof
Sean Penn as Surf God Jeff Spicoli in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.' Photo via Universal Pictures.