Writing About Surfing: A Memory and a Note on Language

I was sitting in Yusef Komunyakaa’s office when I was an undergrad. I don’t remember how we got onto the topic, but I told him, somewhat sheepishly, about a surf session in high school. I was night surfing Topanga with Shingo. It was a semi-full moon. It was a red tide. We couldn’t really see the waves coming, but we could. We could pick out a sort of darker line rising from the dark horizon, see the moonlight’s reflection change. The first thing to go in the dark is your depth perception. Partially blind in my right eye, my depth perception was even worse. But no one else really surfed at 10. pm on a Wednesday in high school so you could pick a spot where you were sure you could drop in and make the wave. After each wave we’d paddle out alone, and, in normal conditions, not know if the other had caught a wave or was sitting on the outside still waiting. If you caught a wave second, you didn’t know if any others fell and you were about to run over them or if they were on the inside and out of the way. But this was a red tide, which means every time we put our hand in the water, it would glow phosphorescent green. Every time spray shot off your board, it would give a quick, phosphorescent flash.

Shingo’s Dad, the painter Sam Francis, was walking on the beach. He said he wanted to come with us. He never went anywhere with us. He was always traveling the world for a show of his paintings opening in a gallery or museum somewhere. One weekend Shingo was supposed to drive both of us for a double date I had set up. He was the only one with a car. Both of the girls liked him. I worked for his Dad cleaning up his studio and his wife’s studio in the afternoons. That afternoon, at his house, he wasn’t there. I didn’t see him until the next Tuesday. When I asked, trying to hide the frustration in my voice, what happened to him, he said he was on his way to school and saw his Dad’s bags packed by the door and asked him where he was going. His Dad said, “Paris. Do you want to come?” His world, the hyper-successful painter Dad, the new car, the killer stereo, the private school–I envied. But I didn’t envy his relationship with his Dad and the step mom who hated her new step kids.

That night in the water, I told my professor, Yusef Komunayakaa, then a relatively unknown poet, that Shingo said to me in the dark stillness between waves, “It’s weird Sam is here. I think he wants to tell me something. I think he wants to tell me he has cancer.” It was an odd way to go about things. To walk on the beach in the dark while we were in the water. But as a father now, it makes sense. He wanted to be out of his head and watching his son, albeit in the dark, surf. That being he helped to create enjoying himself in the water, full of life. Sam died eighteen months later.

When I told Yusef this story he told me I needed to write it. But in poetry, I didn’t know how. When you write “Dude” it is colorless and doesn’t read very well. I was already self conscious about being a junior college transfer. (Jack London, at Berkeley, is said to have dropped out because he was embarrassed by his bad teeth.) Now he was telling me to try to write poems that showed my surfer background, which I was trying to hide so as not to get pigeon-holed with the “dumb stoner surfer” stereotype.

At the time, surf lingo, access to it, wasn’t what it is now in the United States. I wasn’t comfortable letting it try to carry a poem, to trust the reader to understand the lingo without dismissing what it was describing. This lack of trust is still present in the first third of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days. Around surfers, terms like “barrel” or phrases like the “the lip pitched” are just the way we speak, but around laypeople, uneducated editors, it’s confusing. Right now the language is mixed. When I’m on tour and everyone around me speaks surf, I tend to write in the language I use, without explanation. When I’m back here, in Culver City, I hedge a little bit. This blog is for everyone, which means I hope it will be enjoyable for both surfers who understand the language and to my literary friends who don’t know the words but know what is being said. As the blog moves forward I apologize less and less for the lingo. Now, almost any surfing term can be found online at dictionaries like this: http://www.surfing-waves.com/surf_talk.htm or this: https://www.surfline.com/surfology/surfology_glossary_index.cfm.

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