Surf's up

The first time I tried to surf I was 12 and had recently moved to South Florida from one of the fly-over states. I took a bus with my friend to the beach, rented a board two feet longer than I was and had already worn myself out by the time I lugged it two blocks to the water. I didn’t catch any waves that day and frankly don’t remember much else about my experience, the best part being that I had done it at all and from that point on could tell people I had surfed.

Unfortunately, that didn’t earn me much juice from the kids on the school bus the next afternoon. One of them, Shea, overheard me casually mentioning my outing to the cutest girl on the bus and angrily challenged the notion that someone of my stature might have actually undertaken such a thing. Shea wasn’t a bully so much as a bully-wannabe. He was pudgy and tragically uncool, but he was in eighth grade, which put him a step higher on the junior-high food chain than I was.

“What beach did you go to?” he demanded.

“South Beach.”

“Oh yeah? I was at South Beach, and I didn’t see you there. How big were the waves?”

“About two feet,” I estimated.

“Bullshit. There were ripples about six inches.”

Despite the wave-measuring discrepancy, my cute friend graciously put Shea in his place by pointing out that I had no reason to lie and if I said I went surfing, that was that. The incident remains etched in my memory, probably because I learned two things from it that constitute pretty much everything I know about surfing your way to social success: One, bragging that you went surfing can be less cool than not going surfing at all, and two, challenging someone to prove that he went is even lamer than that.

I was thinking about all this yesterday when I went to Zuma for family day at Malibu Makos surf camp. It was one of those perfect, late summer, So Cal beach days, where you look around at all the physical and natural beauty surrounding you and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for everyone in the world who’s not you.

Makos throws this bash annually so parents can come share this heavenly hangout, eat good and plentiful food off the grill and chart their kids’ progress riding the waves. There are ample wetsuits available for people of every age and size who want to join in, adults included. Dozens of boogie- and surfboards dot the beach for the taking.

Watching the kids run in and out of the water, jumping on and off boards as if they were bikes or skateboards, then leaving them in the sand for someone else, it dawned on me that this is what’s cool about surfing. The effortlessness of it, the culture of it, the lack of self-consciousness about it. My kids won’t be bragging about this experience any more than they’d brag about soccer camp or Pony League. They don’t know that Neil Young named an album for this beach, or that for eighty percent of the country, if not the world, a day like this is living the dream. This is just what they do.

I won’t say if I actually ventured into the cold, choppy water and tried, with my kids’ patient instruction, to mount a board or two. That would be uncool.

But, Shea, if you happen to be reading, I’ll tell you this: The waves were 4-6 feet. And the conditions were perfect.

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