“This is your five a.m. wake-up call.” Thus Alan announced himself outside my front door. The sky was dark and it was a Saturday morning. These two facts, taken in combination with my waking state, I would scarcely have credited — but Alan’s ways are known to me. He is an enthusiast for surfing.
Before me was a thick, bearish figure. Unconsciously it stooped a little, to be on a level with the rest of humanity. I looked beyond his shoulder to check the roof rack. Sure enough it was laden. In each hand, Alan held a cup of coffee. He had, perhaps, sensed that getting me up was a bit of an ask. One of these coffees was for me.
“There’ll be people there, believe me.”
“Guaranteed,” said Alan.
In truth, though, I was disposed to resist my friend’s good cheer. The preceding weeks had been ones of listlessness, not to say frittering. I didn’t feel much up for anything. The question occupying me was perhaps commonplace: triumph versus failure. Or, as I liked to say in the latter case, “setback.” Triumph is of course much valued, not just in Los Angeles but everywhere. One likes to achieve it and go on achieving it. Most Angelenos, I suspect, keep in their heads a ledger recording their various triumphs. Slightly to the right of this list, however, must stand another column: setback. It was this latter category which had been puzzling me. Of course my ledger had recorded a fair number of setbacks; but nothing, so far, of really crushing scope. That’s what worried me. I wanted to know more about failure so I could pursue triumph with more sufficient gusto.
The present outing, however, didn’t seem likely to shed any light. Surfing was nature and my sense was that Nature is pretty steady in Los Angeles. Mostly it’s sunny. One comes to think of it as a helpmate, cheerful and obliging. If I want to play an hour of tennis, nature provides the sunshine. Perhaps I feel up for an evening in a terrace cafe. Nature provides the warmth. I want to go on an afternoon hike? Nature furnishes the cooling breeze. I had no complaints, but I had no curiosity either. As for surfing, I thought, “Well, let’s get it over with.”
Alan surveyed the garden through a front-facing window as I got ready. He sipped his coffee.
“It’s the best day for it, literally,” he explained. “A hurricane has been blowing off Mexico for days.”
“Big waves?” I nodded.
“Very much so. And they’re hitting shore right about now. Shall we?”
He hustled me out the door. Our conversations had often taken this tone of appreciation. Alan had long been a devotee of the sport of surfing. I recall his having mentioned it in college, when we’d first known each other. Alan isn’t much changed since those days. About a year previously we’d reconnected on Facebook, and now this water sport fan was enlisting me. By nature, Alan is cheerful. This incidentally is a handy trait in someone of his size. However, when discussing his preferred topic he becomes serious, even pensive. Alan shifted through the streets. We joined the westbound I-10, with a 20 mile drive bringing us to the freeway’s end in Santa Monica. From there we jogged northward. Fifteen minutes later we’d arrived at the parking lot. There were cars. Word of the hurricane had indeed gotten out.
We stood, boards in hand, before a line of surf. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking at. I’d swum in pools, but hadn’t logged much time in the ocean. The water, in the early light, was a slate-like hue shot through with streaks of green. My impression was of a tensed stillness. The flat surface in the near ground slowly shifted northward in the pull of the tide. The level seemed now to sink. A darker patch swelled up behind. This mound grew, broadly approaching shore. The swell took shape, becoming at a certain moment recognizable as a wave. The line of gray green, sheer and tumbling, was met by a man on an elongated fiberglass board.
The north side of the beach featured a rocky outcrop. This outcrop, Alan pointed out, served as a lee to protect from the ocean’s flow.
“Big?” I asked him then of the unblocked waves.
Alan merely nodded, equivocally. He seemed either not to want to oversell them, or else not to have them diminished through joking. I sought out the sheltered part, wanting to get a feel for the board first. Alan headed out to the area already patrolled by surfers.
The first few minutes’ paddling impressed upon me that, whatever I planned to do, I’d better do it soon. The water was far from warm. I was wearing Alan’s wetsuit but it was a little big for me and if a wetsuit isn’t tight enough it’s apparently not of much use. Water gets inside, pooling around one’s shoulders. I didn’t want to use up all my body heat in the kiddy area and moved from the shelter of that rocky prominence.
Swells of water now approached me in greenish, luminous skeins. The sun was coming up. Lying at water level and below the waves, I came to a better appreciation of their height. Strange to say, I wasn’t fearful. This I put down to my detachment, my listlessness. I thought merely: big wave coming. My first efforts were the best. By good luck I managed to get up into a crouch for a moment. On the next wave, I got up on both knees. For the briefest of instants, I caught a glimpse of what it was like to be swept along. The board accelerates suddenly. The force of the water is discovered to be great.
My luck now began to desert me. I barely managed to get on my board in the next few tries. I was becoming tired, too, because one has to paddle flat-out to catch up with the shore-bound wave. In my last efforts, I didn’t even remotely approach catching hold of one. Getting out now proved to be a dangerous business. When closer in, one can’t get above the waves or outswim them. A wave hit me full on, swiping me around, and deposited me forehead first on the ocean floor.
After emerging, I found a quiet dune bank 30 or 40 yards back from the surf. Propping my head on the board, I looked out. The waves had died down. If anything, they were getting bigger. I now had to admit that, in my experience of Los Angeles, this was something new. I’d seen nature in its cheer but never in its anger. The force of these waves had really been overwhelming. All of us might hope to paddle about, and some would paddle better, but soon we all became tired. If we didn’t retreat to shore, we’d sink. For Angelenos, nature is only a helpmate until its mood changes.
My own efforts, I realized, had been less than splendid. I’d hesitate to put them in the triumph column — perhaps if I’d managed to stay out a little longer, or actually catch a wave. I’d been on one briefly, but not for long enough to take credit. I found myself speaking in terms of luck, contingencies and timing. These words, as even I recognized, are to be found in the glossary of setback. Did this experience show me anything, though? Had I found out something new? Perhaps the experience had done so, by omission.
Alan and I reflected upon the encounter in a nearby breakfast hut. My friend had had a good outing, by the sound of it. He’d fallen from a few and ridden a few. I’d seen that, while not absolutely pro-league caliber, he was more serviceable in this pursuit. Alan had run into one problem, though. For weeks prior to this, in any moment of frustration, he’d make a hand gesture that was at once sweeping and choppy. He’d then declare his intent to, “take off, just head out.” Certain South Seas destinations are then mentioned, or Chile, or South Africa. It’s to be understood that these coasts are visited by the largest waves. What, now, would Alan do? The waves had come to him. He need not head out, as he’s been promising, over coffee. I’m sure he’ll think of something.
Alan was sipping orange juice as I tucked away pancakes. My friend remarked the welt on my forehead, reproaching himself for having exposed me to so much, so soon. I absolved him of this particular charge. I might have a headache, but the knock had jarred loose at least one idea.
I had, before that day, been puzzling over the meaning of failure. That puzzle was, as far as I was concerned, solved. It was nature that had given me the clue. Not to speak of my own efforts, which — while probably to be termed a setback — weren’t distinctive. Rather, it was the efforts of Alan and the other wave riders. When these people stepped on their boards that day, they stepped out of happenstance, the contingent, the play of luck. Theirs had been a protest against these things, albeit a short one. They’d known that they couldn’t contend for long against the force of nature. I might try the same my next time out. Listlessness, at the very least, might be pushed aside. Triumphs, without my being obnoxious about it, would be my goal. Everything else is an ocean, rolling cold and green, from here to Tecoman.