Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I realize that I write a lot about things that can’t be conveyed or explained. I feel as though I want to communicate feelings or experiences when I know it is truly impossible. Rather than relying on my ability to communicate that which can only be experienced I rely heavily on the universality of emotion, experience, and knowledge of the numinous. I really feel compelled to talk about the first time I really surfed, but I don’t know that I can communicate the main point, which is the feeling of surfing, because I had never experienced it before doing it and I don’t know how universal this unique experience is.

I had been going with my good friend to a couple different surf spots early mornings and on weekends much like I had gone fishing with my brother and cousin back home. I would join the effort for the sake of the doing of it, not expecting that I would experience any level of success, but knowing that the attempt was fulfilling enough in and of itself. And every once in a while I would catch a fish, but until one strange day I had never caught a wave.

My friend and I would most often go to a less crowded spot off of the far north point of Kailua Beach Park. The waves would break on an island probably a quarter mile off of the shore, and I could never seem to make it out past the break. I was riding his eight foot “long” board. It was not big enough to float my weight so I could jump over the whitewater and it was too big for me to duck dive the break. More often than not I would fight my way out just to get blown back in and then I would have to fight my way out again. Without fail I would get too exhausted to keep at it and would just climb around on the island and skin dive for limpets that always got away.

One day, when we were out at Diamond Head, my friend was surfing and I was battling my way out and getting blown back in. I fought my way out again to a point where I could almost get in front of the break, meaning that I could reach the wave before it threw a lip and bob over the top without getting blasted by the whitewater. I poured it on in a flat out race against the evolution of the wave. My arms ached, my shoulders and my deltoids could barely pull through the water and keep my body on the board and my skin was chafing raw against the salted, waxed fiberglass. I had decided that this was my best shot, that it was now or never. I gave everything I had to make it to the wave before it went white. I could see my friend off in the distance bobbing on the set, pumping his arm in the air, cheering me on. My neck ached too from keeping my head up while exerting every muscle in my upper body, but I could see as I got closer and closer that the wave had hit the point where the sine wave bouncing off of the ocean floor was diminishing as the depth of the water tapered up to the shore line. The wave reared, quite suddenly, and the lip formed on the back side of the wave. It was like the big bad wolf inhaling before delivering the blast of force that would blow me back to Lani Kai.

I was dejected. I gave up. I stopped paddling so the wave would go white first and push into me rather than landing on me with all of its potentially deadly weight. I lay my head on the board and held my breath. My world became a world of the instant; not even a world of connected moments. The blast of torrential whitewater was tremendously powerful. There was no thinking, there was only the reaction. Until that instance I had always tried to go over, duck under, or make something happen while being hit by the wave. I was not a quitter so I never had quit. This time I just let the wave take me, knowing that I would wind up back on shore anyway.

You have to understand how far the break is from the shore at Diamond Head. It’s pretty far. When the whitewater caught the board and I wasn’t kicking or paddling, the fin on the bottom caused the board to be turned in the direction of the shore, the way it was supposed to, as was the intention of the designers. Once the board was turned in the right direction the rest of the organic hydrodynamics took effect and the board was stabilized by the power of the wave. I was still far from the shore, but the board was caught where it should have been and I was on it. I realized in an instant that I was not going to be dumped into the water and bounced off of the ocean floor. I tried to stand up.

Have you ever been working on staging or on a ladder and taken a step and found that there was nothing under your foot, either because the planks on the staging were overlapped or because you had miscounted the rungs on the ladder? Perhaps you have been walking up stairs and thought there was another step at the top, so your foot rose and fell and did not meet a step where you thought it ought to be? (Or perhaps you’ve found yourself sliding inexorably toward the mouth of an open well with no way to stop yourself? Was that just me?) There is a split second of absolute abject terror that starts in your solar plexus and pulls your soul out of your body through that point. Stretch that split second to the entire ride of the wave, and that is as close as I can come to describing the feeling of catching your first wave. Have you ever had a dream where you were flying? Have you ever had a dream where you became aware that you were dreaming, but you were not so fully awake as to leave your dream state? Then you could control the unreal and unbelievable things that occurred in your dream. The feeling of knowing that you can keep that freefalling feeling going and control it is the same feeling as controlling your dream. Imagine the euphoria you would feel if you discovered that it was real, and that you could do it whenever you wanted to as long as the sets were rolling in. Add to that the fact that you are outside in the elements and in nature, experiencing the same feelings between the euphoric moments that you would on a mountain hike, and you have a very addictive combination. There are many, many people who give up everything else and devote all of their time to surfing. That is the draw.

Luckily, I sucked at it enough so that I knew it could never become a serious pastime for me, but I got good enough at it to experience the euphoria of catching a good wave often enough to keep me coming back. And my friend finally let me know that the long board was not really a long board for a guy as tall as me. Once I rode ten foot boards at easier spots it got downright fun. But then when you’re out there to ride three foot waves and a seven foot set rolls in…

But that’s a story for another time.

Lakeshore Limited

I’ve got an experience stuck in my head, and I want to get it written down before it flits away. It won’t take but a second. I don’t know why this experience sticks in my mind; I think it may be because it was so pure and unfettered an incident of revelry. Here it is:

Once upon a time, I found myself on a train going west. This story is not about the journey west or the destination of the train. It is about the first leg of the trip, from Boston to Chicago, on AmTrak’s Lakeshore Limited. I have spent days and days on trains in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, and I think the Lakeshore Limited is the train I like the best. I won’t deny that this very well may be because the Lakeshore Limited is the train I find myself on every time I arrive home in Boston. One has to admit, though, that the Lakeshore Limited has a certain character that is not found on any other train.

The people who staff the train live in one of the destination cities, which means that there are either Bostonians or Chicagoans imbuing the journey with their wit, sardonic attitude, and gruff hospitality. The passengers are also all either coming from one of those cities or going to one of those cities. This isn’t to say that all of the passengers are Bostonians or Chicagoans, but there is a very strong probability that they are New Englanders or Midwesterners. The train itself is the cultural melting pot of the two regions.

There are scheduled journeys at night. We left Boston at night and were scheduled to arrive in Chicago in the morning. There are sleeper cars that I’m sure were full, but the time of year was just at the beginning of spring break for the colleges, and the economy seats were all full too. I had never seen a train full to capacity until then. It was crammed with probably eighty percent young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, each with far too much luggage to keep in the cabin of the train. College kids were elbowing each other and stepping on each others’ toes to get to and from the bathroom and to their backpacks, etc. I decided I would head to the bar car for a beer because a fair percentage of the kids were not old enough to drink.

The bar car was just as crowded. It reminded me of a Dublin pub at 10:55. It was a lucky thing that someone was getting up just as I was looking for a place to sit. I hopped on that seat like a gull on a French fry, dropped my pack and shuffled through the rocking line to get a beer. People were thrown into each other with each sway of the train, and it soon became obvious that it would not be tenable to remain in the bar car and to uphold the integrity of the idea of “personal space”. It was like a front row crush at a general admission concert. I finally got back to my seat with my beer and tried to settle in next to a very heavy guy who was probably ten years my senior. He made a joke about everyone fitting in, and the thrust of it was the double entendre between getting along with a group of people and actual physical space. There was no way he could have made the joke to just me without everyone in the immediate vicinity hearing. We all laughed, it was funny. Because of the rattling and rocking noises of the train, each conversation had to be louder than the background noise, which made it impossible for everyone to talk at once. It was pretty clear too that there were plenty of people who were traveling alone and did not have the impetus to control individual conversations. Organically, the conversation in the car became a single conversation, based on clever quips, sarcastic comments, and clever banter. It was the single time when I felt most like I was an extra in a well written sit-com. As Boston became Worcester we felt out how it would work for us to all stay in the crowded car together. As Worcester became Springfield we were all having a good time. As Springfield became Albany we were trying to keep the laughter coming and looking for ways to maintain the good time. It became like a rolling party. The people who had seats would have their drinks passed to them by the people who stood by the bar. People whose feet got tired were spelled by those of us with seats.

I noticed at the end of the car three college girls standing together. One was clearly of north Asian descent, one was clearly of purely African descent, and one was clearly of north European descent, with blue eyes and blond hair. Each of the girls was beautiful but I looked at them in wonder not just to enjoy their beauty but to revel in the fact that I came from and was shaped by a place that could support and advance the cause of diversity so well.

The large man next to me was a driving force in encouraging the shared humor of the car. Eventually he lumbered to his feet, and I thought it a pity if he were to head back to his seat at that point, that it would leave the rest of us at a bit of a loss. He went to the bar and collected a guitar case from the barman. He explained to an individual near us, but really to everyone in the car, that he was a professional studio guitar player, and that he had to travel a lot to make his recording sessions. He was deathly afraid to fly, though, and had to take the train everywhere. He wouldn’t dare leave his guitar for storage or check in, and felt like playing a bit now.

The air filled with requests and there was a bit of a rush on the beer as everyone settled in for a tune. But there would be no settled tunes that night. The heavy guy was a studio musician who had done long stints in bar bands all over New England, and knew exactly which tunes he could pound out on an acoustic with a pickup and a little amp that would get a crowd of hazy college kids singing. Before long, every voice was raised in song and the barman had to run back to the dining car for more beer. The rocking of the car sent people leaning into each other, and there they stayed. Almost as if the player had a set list he put one song after another that complemented it perfectly, and we rocked on to Toledo.

The guitar player was like a master of ceremonies for the train that night, and he worked magic on the lot of us who were there. He played a couple slower tunes toward the end of the night, and took my request of “Sunny” on the condition that I sing it, and I tried, but he grew frustrated when I couldn’t remember the words and sung it himself (as I knew he would). When he put his guitar back in its case he made pronouncements about the time, and spoke of how much fun we all had- he wrapped up the night for us, and we filed back into our seats to unwind while we rolled into the city of big shoulders. When we filed off of the train in Chicago there were a lot of tired but satisfied grins. Instead of us feeling like we had done a hard night of travel we were experiencing the afterglow of a good party.

That is my most memorable recollection of riding the Lakeshore Limited, but I have to say that each trip has been good. The views of the Great Lakes are great (pardon the pun) if you travel by day, and the people are always cool. I hate to sound like an ad for the train, but I haven’t traveled any real distance by train in some time, and I kind of miss it.

Go West, Young Man

There was a time when I was free to do whatever struck my fancy. It is rare that such a time presents itself, and when it does, it should be utilized to full advantage. I had some money in my pocket, I had no dependents, and I had the vigor and wherewithal to do something simply for the experience of it.

A friend contacted me and told me of his intention to visit a mutual friend at grad school in central California. He said that he knew I had availability and wondered if I might like to go. I told him that I now had a new friend in Colorado who would also be happy to host us if we found our way there. No sooner had we mentioned what was possible than we were planning how to make it happen. We got together and held “planning sessions” and in no time we had tickets for flights to Sacramento and Denver, and had people who would be waiting to pick us up at the airports.

We got off the plane in Sacramento and I commented that this was my first time in California. I had half expected, erroneously, that the earth would be quaking as soon as I got off the plane, and that all of the action scenes from every cheap movie I ever saw would be playing themselves out just outside the window. I thought the whole state would be filled with cowboys and hippies and valley girls goofing on surfers. OK, so I wasn’t all wrong, but the airport was filled with mostly regular people. The hippest hippie in the world was there, though, and he was the old friend we were there to see. We took a few minutes there in the airport to catch up, and then spilled out into the legendary California sunshine to work our way to the University of California in Davis.

Our friend’s car was a conservative sedan that you wouldn’t imagine he would drive. I forget exactly how long it took us to get from Sacramento to Davis, but the air was crisp, the sun was bright, and the conversation was vibrant. Since the time that we had all been in high school together my friend with whom I traveled had been in the Peace Corps (in the Persian Gulf), I had been in the Peace Corps, and the friend we were visiting was pursuing a doctorate that would help unlock the secrets of the universe. We did a lot of catching up on that ride.

When we got to his apartment I felt as if I had strolled right back into my senior year of college. The place was decorated in bohemian cheap, and there were people comfortably located on every sitting and lounging space available. It turned out that the crowd that was gathered was my friend’s band, and they were convening in preparation for their gig that night. My friend played the trumpet and some percussion instruments for the band, and they had gotten quite popular in the area. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and some recreational refreshment before heading out to the gig.

The show was at a well established brew pub, originally founded in the seventies. It was founded by a master brewer from Bavaria who had fallen in love with California and did not want to return to Germany, but who loved his native Germany too. He had decorated the pub in German style and had continued to brew Bavarian style beers that one would be likely to find at the Oktoberfest in Munich. These he served in one liter tankards of leaded glass, just like the ones advertisers showed zaftig frauleins brandishing in European beer gardens. I thought it was really cool, especially since I am such a lover of beer, but the clientele completely interrupted the German illusion. The place was filling up with nouveau bohemians and throwback hippies, all meticulously arranged so as to appear unkempt in just the right way. Undoubtedly, this was their milieu, and the event was a minor happening in their society. My friend and I from the east looked quite conservative by comparison, and my friend who blew the trumpet was the hippest hippie because he obviously gave no mind to the politics of the alternative world that swirled around him. Not that he was unaware of what transpired from day to day, but rather that he pitied those people too caught up in niggling about life and not living it.

He sat with us drinking a huge brown beer while the band took the stage and the bass player started a chunky line that clearly came as second nature to him. The rhythm guitar laid an easy progression over the bass line and it became clear that it was a contemporary funk song. The drummer and the lead guitar hopped in with driving beat and hook after hook, and we got worried that our friend had been too caught up in our conversation and had forgotten that he was part of the band. The band played on for about three minutes before our friend finished his beer and said he’d see us in just a bit. He went around to the back of the stage and came up onto it from behind, leaning against an amp and grinning. He held his trumpet in his hand, but was clearly caught up in the tune, like he was the biggest fan who happened to have the best seat in the house. I think I was the only one who took any notice of him at all. The song went on an on as a funk jam, and I knew that he had forgotten his part or missed his cue or something. My other friend took his leave to step outside and smoke, perhaps he could no longer stand to watch. I sat drinking beer and enjoying the song as it grew to a tremendous crescendo and, in an instant, every member of the band stopped on a dime and a spotlight bathed my friend in light while the rest of the stage went dark. He had snapped to life and was blowing the wildest, most inspired instrumental solo I have ever witnessed. The crowd had obviously been waiting for this. The players were good, and the band together was great, but my friend was the best musician among them by far, and they all knew it. The rest of the band joined in again and my friend was an active member of the show from then on. I was flabbergasted.

Over the course of the night I progressively grew less aware of where my body ended and the rest of the world began. I felt like I was in a UHF TV show that was experiencing interference. The return to the apartment was just the real beginning of the party, because the band couldn’t hang out and interact while they were working. The night grew fuzzier and I knew that the party was over when my friend handed me a hot cup of coffee, and it was light out. They tell me I had been sleeping for hours. The one thing that did stay in my memory from the night was seeing groupies in action. It was the first and only time I had been at a party with groupies. They were fawning over the members of the band and were vying to position themselves with the band members throughout the night. My friend had to extricate himself from several admirers in order to spend time with us. I thought it was the strangest thing I had ever seen.

My friend asked me what I thought of California and I had to admit to him that the Golden State was a little too hung over for my taste. He laughed and said that he had just the thing. We went to the university to visit the raptor center. We were out in the beauty of the California day and we were let in to watch the birds of prey feed. My favorites were the owls. My friend had to run in to his office very quickly; this sparked a conversation about his work. We asked him what he did, and he cheerily and immediately replied that he was a mad scientist. We pressed him more about the mad science. He became pensive, obviously thinking about how to portray his work in a way that an intelligent layperson could understand. He started by explaining that the particles that make up atoms have distinct qualities of their own. He went on to explain that there are particles that are just as small or smaller than the constituent parts of atoms that are not bound into atomic structures. This was my introduction to neutrinos, I think. He went on to explain that waves are observable, measurable manifestations of energy, and that they are free from the rules that govern particles (particles being “things” and waves being “energy”). His work focused on discerning the difference between particles and waves, and identifying whether or not there was a “building block” having the properties of both a particle and a wave, and thus unlocking the secret to the makeup of the universe. I was dehydrated and my head was throbbing, but I remember being fascinated by his description of his work, though my depiction of it is erroneous and clumsy. I thought that every hippie in a band should contribute as much to the world. Since then string theory has gained credence in the scientific community and I wonder if he alluded to that at all.

My spinning head was spinning as we drove into the redwood forest. It was not a forest of giant sequoias like I had seen on TV, but the redwoods were beautiful trees, and they are straight and tall. The aspect of the forest was clean. The bed of the forest was not crowded or cluttered like the deciduous forests back home, and there were no low hanging branches interrupting your view or posture. It was unlike the forests I had been in in Africa either. In the stillness and shade we shared a moment of quietude that refreshed the psyche. As we saddled up to get back to the pad I felt a twinge of regret that we would be flying out the next day.

We spent the next day catching up some more and just enjoying each others’ company as we had done as youths in high school. It was a day in which we did not need to experience anything extraordinary to get the most out of our time together, and we had to fly sometime around midnight. We made a big meal, we watched a movie, we walked to his favorite coffee shop- we clocked shared mundane experiences, and the common denominator of each was our mutual camaraderie. It is telling that this time stands out as the best part of the trip for me.

Our friend put us on the plane at some ungodly hour of the night and wished us good luck. We bade him farewell, and in the middle of the night we arrived in Denver. I was a bit disappointed because I couldn’t see the mountains from the window of the plane. We got off the plane in Denver and my friend was not there to greet us. This was before the age of the ubiquity of cell phones. We waited and waited and there was not only no sign of my friend, but there was no sign of anyone. Stanton International is dead in the middle of a weeknight. We discussed what to do, and I suggested that we try to make our way to Boulder and find his place, and that the only other alternative I could think of was to either wait until daylight and try to contact him, or to get on a flight back to Boston. We wound up taking a cab to Boulder, which cost us a little more than we wanted to spend, but we found my friend’s place. I knocked on his door loudly and persistently, and he eventually opened the door in his underwear with his hair two stories higher than his head. He let us in and said he was really glad to see us, but wanted to know why we were there a day early?

I said that there must have been a miscommunication, and that I didn’t mean to drag him out of bed. I suggested that we all crash out until daybreak and then decide what to do. (For the record, I know I had told him the right day, I’m pretty sure he just spaced it.) He said no, that since we were all awake and it was still predawn, that we had just enough time to hike the flat irons to watch the sunrise. We were tired, but we figured that it was an opportunity that we wouldn’t get again soon, so we took it. We waited while my friend got dressed and then we drove out to where the flat irons are. My high school friend and my Peace Corps friend got along well, as I knew they would. When we arrived at the trail head and began to hike I was a little surprised to find that “hike” in Colorado does not mean the same thing as “hike” in New England. In New England “hike” means a long walk up a mountain or hill, gaining altitude gradually over time. In Colorado “hike”, according to my friend, meant a climb up a rock face. I felt bamboozled, but my eastern friend and I kept our wits, focused our attention, and made it up to where we would watch the sun rise.

Sunrise from the flatirons was magnificent. It was one of those moments when you realize that you are in the presence of God. What else can be said? If we had never taken that trip then we would never have that experience to carry with us. It was clear, as the gloaming turned to day, that this experience was the reason we had come.

And then we had to do the same climb in reverse, which is harder, and it was back to reality. We got back to his place and because the date of our arrival was in contention, he had not taken the day off from work. My eastern friend and I stayed at his place and rested and then got out to explore Boulder Colorado a little bit. Boulder is a nice city. It is a beautiful city high in the mountains and the air is crisp and clean. I couldn’t help coming away with the feeling that Boulder knew how cool it was. I felt like Boulder had an attitude. This feeling was not abated over the next day and a half that I stayed there, but rather it was reinforced. This was the beginning of the “extreme” sports movement, and Colorado is an extreme state. Further, Boulder is a college town filled with young “extreme” people. I’m certain that my assessment of Boulder as a city with an attitude stemmed mainly from my first experience of being out of touch with the youth. That had never happened to me before, and I think I took it out on the city. Next time I am in Boulder I promise to give it a better chance.

We stayed another day and explored Boulder a bit more. We had excellent Mexican food, which I was later to find out was quite authentic, and spent time recounting our misadventures in the Peace Corps and comparing the Arab experience to the African experience. Each of us thought that his experience was the best and most unique, and for each of us individually, we were right. The next day we got on a plane at a more acceptable hour after saying our goodbyes. When we landed at Logan I knew the trip was one without a purpose, but it was one well undertaken and one that I would not soon forget.