Peaks and Troughs
I am from California originally. I was born in San Bernadino California. We lived in Rancho Cucamunga until I was three, (roughly 1976). I do have distinct memories of living in a small ranch home where we had a small fenced yard, a dog, and small galley kitchen. I don’t necessarily hold California as a birthright, nor do I have lasting memories of the Pacific. But, at the back of my mind, since I was very small, I’ve had the notion of being slightly out of place, or out of phase with my surroundings.
I grew up around the water. I started swimming when I was young. My brother and I spent hours and hours in the water at Deer Lake in Clarkston Michigan. We had a beautiful fiberglass sailboat we sailed on local lakes. I loved sailing in that boat. Sitting on the leeward side on breezy days, with the rail dipping into the water, I would put my hand in along the gunnel to feel the rush of the foamy green water between my fingers. I always wondered why I couldn’t be in the water, instead of on the water.
One summer, as I got more interested in sailing the boat, my Dad and I were out at Deer Lake together. A storm front approached. The sky darkened and whitecaps appeared across the surface. The lake cleared of other boats. Deer Lake is a notoriously fickle lake to sail, wind will appear and then disappear due to the hills surrounding it. The sustained wind from the storm pushed us very quickly across the water. My father started ordering my to hike way out on the windward side to keep us moving. Our boat was a small centerboard driven boat with no keel. It would start planing quite quickly. It required a lot of attention to keep it upright. I’d sailed it going pretty fast before, but never this fast. The boat was throwing off a fine bow wake, and I was holding on with my toes to the centerboard well and leaning all the way over the rail. We tore through the water at what seemed an incredible speed to me then. Dad would bring us across the lake towards the put in and then tack quickly to race all the way back across the lake. Soon the wind built even more. My small weight wasn’t enough to hold us and we capsized. I was pitched headlong into the water. I remember thinking that I’d lost my prized top-sider loafers that were loose in the boat. Dad, no stranger to near disaster, as his sailing memoirs hold testament, soon swam under the boat, put his feet on the centerboard, grabbed the gunnel and heaved the boat back upright mast and all. He ordered me in and told me to start bailing. He kept luffing the sails out until we had gotten most of the water out, and then we started screaming across the lake again.
As an adult, I’ve probably romanticized that experience. It seems largely positive to me. But thrilling in a way that seems morally slippery as an eel until you start to look closely at my adult life. I got into paddling as an adult. Lots and lots of people I’ve met have gotten into kayaking as adults. They buy a boat, they go out have fun, and then put the boat back up and don’t think that much about it. As my wife points out, it’s never been that way for me. All or nothing. Maybe it was in an effort to bottle that feeling of tearing across the lake skipping like a stone across the white caps with the wind at top speed.
I remember seeing paintings from the romantic era as a college student and not knowing what to make of them, except Turner.
JMW Turner understood landscape, color and why something that could destroy you is beautiful.
Now, I see myself when I look at these paintings. A slave to the sublime. Schopenhauer’s scale of the sublime that I’ve spoken about before in some of my Canoecopia talks illuminates this quite well. Though most would agree any German philosophy has it’s pitfalls.
Schopenhauer rated his ideas on the sublime.
- Feeling of Beauty – Light is reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt observer).
- Weakest Feeling of Sublime – Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, objects devoid of life).
- Weaker Feeling of Sublime – Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).
- Sublime – Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer).
- Full Feeling of Sublime – Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects).
- Fullest Feeling of Sublime – Immensity of Universe’s extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature).
Most of past posts here, explain my journey from about 2005 to the present. Though it might be safe to say that social media put a hole in my writing here. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the water, thinking about waves, the wind, and ultimately the sublime.
I’ve maintained that my pursuit was healthy because it was an active outdoor pursuit. As I got more into surfing, it absorbed more and more of my time and thought. The first time I caught a steep wave in a surf kayak with that pit of dread in my belly, but seeing a bottom turn coming at the same time, felt like a fulfillment of purpose. Suddenly I had linked my childhood and my adult life in a way that I think most people would welcome. My sense of well being after a surf session is always buddha like. I am ready to declare world peace after a beautiful session in South Haven where I catch amazing waves and feel the boat carving water, flying along a wave. Very little in life gives you that sort of focus or contentment. But is it given? Is there a cost. I am not sure.
The pursuit of that feeling led me down a very tricky path. That tricky path is littered with a series of symptoms that I don’t think I can ignore anymore. I would have called myself unbummable as recently as last October. I have always tried to look forward. I never try to dwell too much on past mistakes, I do try and learn from them. But suffice it to say, I don’t live in the past. I live in the ever emerging now. Since 2005 when I first heard of the Santa Cruz surf kayak festival I’d wanted to go and compete. I’d seen videos, met and even been coached by people who have competed at the very highest level. It was a dream I’d wanted for 15 years. I went through some rehab for my shoulder last year, and then I really buckled down and lost forty pounds. My surfing dramatically improved. I was more fluid in the boat. I could see how much easier it was to surf without being tubby. I am 46. I know I am not getting younger. So I decided to go compete. I’d been to Santa Cruz to surf a few times. I knew that it could be a daunting environment to surf in. Big waves right up against the rocks. But I was willing to give it a go. I had zero illusions about being truly competitive. I knew who the top competitors were, and how good they were. But I wanted to be a part of it. Once.
That year started off on a bad omen. I broke my beloved Mega Bullitt XS in the surf on January 4th. I didn’t take that as a bad omen at the time, but in retrospect perhaps it was. With full support from Laura, I bought another boat. Fully prepared to compete in it come March. I went down to Florida and did some surfing near Amelia Island and Matanzas inlet. As everything was frozen over. I felt as ready as I could get. I planned my trip to have a few days of warm ups prior to the competition. All I wanted was to catch waves, score a few points and not swim. The competition very much lived up to expectations. I met an amazing group of people. My heats were big and challenging. The dawn patrol heat at high tide against the rocks was very very challenging. I was lucky to make it out of that heat in my boat. One of the competitors a super fun Japanese kid, who honestly was a better surfer, swam and got cut up on the rocks. But it was also to be honest, fun. So much fun. I stayed another two days after the comp and kept surfing at Steamer Lane. I felt so great in my boat. I was hitting moves with repeated practice that I thought I would never hit. I didn’t want to go home.
The not wanting to go home was partially coupled with going back to what I knew was coming. The comedown turned into the comedown of all time. I came back to an empty house. My wife was off at work on a cruise. My kids were gone. One at college, the other off living on his own. I had flown back into a void. I have very very dear friends, but it seemed like no sort of consolation or empathy was reaching me. I sunk into a profound depression. Me and the dog for days on end. I went two weeks without really seeing anyone or going anywhere. I found myself drinking alone and weeping a lot. One kind of bled into the other into a brand of despicable self-fulfilling misery. By the time the weather started to improve, I was still in a funk. I couldn’t snap out of it. To make matters worse. Work had become very very challenging with a very turbulent set of times. I am very very fortunate in my job. I have great people to work with. I have a fun job that I am good at, and that I am well compensated for. But everything changes. And things changed at work as well as summer rolled on. I really sunk even lower. Laura couldn’t snap me out of it. I remember distinctly one afternoon when there was a good wind in South Haven where I was surfing my Aries over the sand bar and thinking about other things. Work. Home. Friends. But I wasn’t having those moments of joy where I was disconnected from other thoughts. I was not in the moment. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. The thing that gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment was not working. It was like the Richard Ashcroft song, the drugs don’t work anymore.
Looking back at this time now with a bit of reflection, I have some benefit of hindsight. Being an empty-nester really snuck up on me. As I sit here in a house with my wife and 2 kids all at home, I realize how much I love having everyone here. How much I love making meals for everyone. And while it’s never perfect, I love them very much and having no one here was very very strange. I also realize that my pursuit of surfing put me in a very unusual position. I don’t have the same community as they do in California. I wish I did. But I don’t. The closest I have is the boardies and the SUP paddlers I see all over SW Michigan on stormy days. So because of that I am continually experiencing very intense and fun sessions that I just don’t have anyone to share with. That led to a feeling of isolation that I can’t really explain. It’s an unlabeled ennui. A jar of viscous pain that will never go away. But at some level, if I want to have that feeling of joy from surfing. I will largely be having it alone. I do have friends that enjoy surfing, and even surf kayaking. But surfing is ultimately about conditions. And in SW Michigan that means you drop what you’re doing to go surfing. If I waited to have someone to go with, I might never go surfing again. So I have to build some expectations about my life that are realistic without feeling like I am alone. I also have to reset expectations around always choosing surfing instead of other paddling where I do have a much larger choice of people to paddle with. There is a very big group of white water paddlers and sea kayakers to do trips with. And I can always check in on my sublime moments and step into the Turner painting at will.
I was very fortunate to be picked up out of my doldrum by my wife, kids, and my friends. They have my eternal love for their patience with my misery. I reached out and got support from the people that really matter to me.