Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Sounds of Silence

“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”  Whether or not Yogi Berra actually said it, this quote is attributed to him and like most of Yogi-isms, it’s a paradox that makes you think and then smile.  Lately I’ve taken the same philosophy with surf spots.  Part of the frustration stems from age, meaning an accumulation of a job, family and obligations have prevented me and many others from getting into the water as frequently as we used to.  When I do get out, it’s usually to a spot that’s typically really crowded.  As a result, I catch fewer waves and I take less chances on the waves I do catch.  I also start to hate people, surfers in particular, as I’m forced to hear all of their stupid conversations.  Everyone’s a bad ass, everyone rips, everyone scores with the ladies and everyone’s smarter than someone else.  With all this brilliance in the water, you’d think I’d be inspired to be totally cool just like them.  Um, no.  In fact, when I get out of the water, I want to throw my board in a trash can and find another way to spend my time and energy.

You see, although we’d never admit it, surfers have a pack mentality.  Most of them ride similar boards, wear similar wetsuits, listen to similar music, wear similar clothes and, unfortunately, surf the same few spots that everyone else does.  I’ve been guilty of this pack mentality for years, paddling out to a crowded spot with the logic that, “if it’s crowded, it must be good.”  We have the same attitude when we commute to work.  Even though the highway has bumper-to-bumper traffic, we travel the same route because it will eventually get us there and that’s how everyone else gets to where they’re going.  There are however alternate routes.  Finding and using them may take some trial and error and it may not be the most direct route but at least you’re driving and that beats sitting and getting frustrated every day of the week in my book.  Less traffic, different (and probably better) scenery, and some new discoveries and perspective are all to be gained.  

Should it be any different with surfing?  No it shouldn’t.  So I’ve started looking for an alternate route.  A road less traveled.  Greener pastures.  A spot less surfed.  With this new philosophy, my last two surfs have been so special because they’ve been so personal.  Last weekend I had a peak all to myself even though the water was clogged with surfers.  I paddled out to the spot farthest from the parking lot, requiring the longest walk.  The peak didn’t break as consistently and the wave face wasn’t as smooth as the other peaks but the drops were bigger and the rides were more challenging, thus more fun in my opinion.  This morning was different but no less fulfilling.  A mix of meager swells created small, unimpressive conditions.  In the past, I wouldn't have even bothered to paddle out.  I would’ve opted for a crowded spot, assuming it was the only spot working or I would’ve gone home and pissed and moaned all day about there not being any surf.  Well, with my new outlook, there’s always surf and even the small days are fun.  I surfed a spot today for example that I hadn’t surfed in years; the old me always reasoned that if there was surf there, it was probably better (and more crowded) somewhere else.  It wasn’t the best day ever but I had lots of waves to myself.  In fact I took off on waves I’d normally pass on.  I thought about fundamentals like duck diving and proper stroke technique.  I studied the waves a little more closely, like where they were breaking and how many waves were to a set.  And I took more chances.  I took off later and deeper.  I made turns in spots on the wave I’d normally draw a line and trim.  I also fell a lot more but like anything in life you won’t improve if you don’t take chances.  

I can’t do these things nearly as easily when it’s crowded.  When it’s crowded, every wave counts more because there are fewer of them.  Also, I typically surf more conservatively, not wanting to fall unnecessarily.  I’m more likely to hurt someone and I don’t need other surfers to write me off as a kook and never give me another wave.  So I’d rather have small, junky waves all to myself than larger, well-shaped waves with 30-50 people all over a single peak. From the car, this spot didn’t look like much.  Again, in the past, I would've driven right past it.  From the water, It was 3-4 feet and fun.  I noticed and enjoyed how clear the water was, how amazing the rocks looked up close, and how beautiful of a day it turned out to be.  Hallelujah. 

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.  Or at least less crowded than somewhere else.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hotlips, Part 2

As I shared in my last post, I met Tammy several years ago and was struck by this truly enigmatic surfer girl.  The following is the second half of my conversation with Tammy. 

When did you realize the work you were doing with Doug was for surfing?
Oh, almost immediately. When Doug didn't need help with his ding repair projects, I got lost in all of his surfing magazines. I got a pretty good indication pretty early on what surfboards were for and how surfers used them.  Those magazines took me to a world I never knew existed. Big, beautiful blue and green waves in places I'd never heard of.  It was a complete fantasy world.  Doug's yard was like a classroom and he was like a teacher who answered millions of dumb questions, the kinds of questions that only a little kid can come up with.

Sounds like you and Doug had a pretty special relationship. What did your parents think of you spending so much time with an older boy?
Well, let me first say that there was nothing immoral going on.  If anything, Doug and I were like brother and sister.  Having said that though, Doug and I also became very good friends.  We still are today.  But anyway, neither of us had any brothers or sisters, so we treated each other like the brother and sister we never had.  I think my parents saw this and understood this and were cool with it.   They were pretty trusting of Doug because he was such a good kid.   He was so polite and friendly and respectful and my parents really appreciated that.  They saw the surfing aspect as cultural enrichment, which they were really big on.  It helped that he went to Catholic school and that my parents were Catholic.  Don't get me wrong—he and his friends were a bunch of smart asses, but not around adults.  They were really good guys.  No pot, no beer – at least around me – just a whole lot of Van Halen!

Right on.  So, how long before you got in the water and started surfing?
It wasn't too long.  Maybe a year.  Once Doug got a driver’s license, it didn’t take long before he took me out to Santa Cruz to watch him and his friends surf.  I'd sit on the beach and watch them for hours. I learned what I could from watching them and asking Doug questions.  I learned by listening to Doug and his friends about the local breaks in Santa Cruz and Capitola and the swells they needed well before I ever even paddled out.  So much so that, the more I learned, the more I wanted to surf!  Doug gave in pretty easily and started bringing a longboard for me to use when he went surfing with his friends.  It was an old 9'0" Pearson Arrow, the board he learned to surf on.  There’s no way I could’ve been taller than 5'0", so to me, a 9'0" was a gigantic!  No worries though.  It paddled really well and was thick enough to cut through the soup.  Usually, Doug and his friends would drop me off at Cowell's and then head up to the Lane (Steamer Lane).  Eventually, I worked my way up to Indicators, just below the Lane and then started paddling out with them to Inside or Middle Peak to sit, watch and learn.  When I got comfortable out there, I began shoulder hopping on Doug's waves and would listen carefully to what he said after every wave.

How were you perceived out in the lineup? Let's face facts: you were a young girl on a longboard during a time when most people didn't take too kindly to girls in the lineup, let alone longboarders. What was that like?
Well, as far as being a girl is concerned, it's only gotten better in Santa Cruz the last several years.  Women have really established a presence in the water now and I think it really helps mellow the vibe.  The exact same with longboarding: it's totally respectable again. I was probably more discriminated against for being a longboarder than for being a girl back then, but I always felt safe and protected around Doug and his friends.  Don't get me wrong—the crowds can be bad and you’ll occasionally see a stink eye or two, but I think surfers actually behave themselves a little more when there are girls in the water.  There are girls of all ages out here now — kids, teenagers girls, UCSC students, moms, and even grandmas.  Together they've kind of diluted the testosterone level in the water!

So overall you'd say the vibe in Santa Cruz is pretty good?
Yeah, I'd say so.  When I was sitting in the lineup early on and studying the waves, I was also studying the vibe.  There are some spots around here that are a lot mellower than others and I dig surfing those mellow places a lot because of the mellow vibe.  When the surf gets good though, no matter where you are, surfers get more aggressive.  And I can understand that.  If it's crowded and you want to catch waves, then you've got to be aggressive.

Do you consider yourself aggressive?
I can be if necessary, like when the surf is really good and there are other aggressive surfers out there.  I think it's something you have to be able to turn on and off.  You see, it can be a real problem when being aggressive is misunderstood. Respect goes a long way and I'm a firm believer in it.  There are so many surfers in Santa Cruz where probably half are locals and half are coming over the hill.  You can tell who lives here and who doesn't, so you know who to look out for. I used to get hassled sometimes for being a kook and that's understandable.  I was a kook.  But even though I'm coming over the hill to surf, I've gained enough confidence where I feel I deserve a little respect too. I just try to get that respect with a smile and some really fluid surfing.

Do you have any plans for the future? Does surfing fit into those plans?
Oh yeah, surfing's for life!  The older surfers out here are such an inspiration.  To be honest, I never really lost interest in being a doctor, but that takes so much time and commitment.  I've started taking some EMT classes and am considering a career with the Fire Department.  I think being a paramedic would be the next best thing to being a doctor.  Not only that, but it would also allow me to be a stronger and more active part of the community, which is something my parents hammered on me my whole life.

Speaking of community, how do you see yourself in the surfing community?
Are you asking me if I see myself as a girl who surfs or a Vietnamese girl who surfs or, worse, a longboarder?! 

Nah, it's not much of an issue.  I mean, there are millions of Vietnamese people in the Bay Area.  Because of that, I guess surfers don't trip out when they see me in the water.  But Santa Cruz is a pretty tightly knit surfing community and one I’ve been a part of it for several years now so I haven’t thought about it in years.  At the core, I get nothing but a good vibe from people in the water and I do my best to return that vibe.  But, I don’t try to over analyze it.  We’re talking surfing here.  Everyone's just stoked to be out, catching some waves, no matter what.

Tammy, thanks for being an inspiration to so many people.  Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Hotlips, Part 1

I went to a parade on Memorial Day weekend and among the soldiers and vets, Harleys and hot rods, there was a vintage Huey helicopter doing fly-bys overhead.  I looked up in awe and waved to the crew of vets peering down proudly at us from the large cargo door.  It was pretty surreal and with all of the active, reserve, and retired warriors all around, I got caught up in the moment.  I tried to imagine what a soldier must have felt when he or she heard that distinctive sound and looked up to see this steel bird hovering overhead.  How would a soldier have felt looking up at this chopper knowing they were getting picked up, or worse, left behind?  

These thoughts, sparked by this iconic image of the Vietnam War, reminded me of an old friend.  I haven’t seen Tammy for several years now however I’ll never forget her.  We met under the oddest of circumstances: on a busy street in San Jose, CA.  At a stoplight, she pulled up alongside me and, having seen the Johnny Rice Surfboards sticker on my rear windshield, complimented me on my choice of boards.  "I ride one too," she said matter-of-factly.  I had to think twice.  I was in San Jose, almost an hour away from the coast, but my surroundings suggested I was more than 200 hours away.  Not a hint of the beach.  Despite the palm trees, we were enveloped in smog, surrounded by traffic, and alongside people who wouldn't know the difference between a longboard and an ironing board.  Surfing to most of them involved a mouse and a modem.

As unique as our meeting was, I was all the more impressed with Tammy for who she was.  What struck me immediately was the fact that Tammy was Vietnamese.  In San Jose, her ethnicity is nothing special.  The city hosts the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.  They are a growing minority whose culture and heritage have permeated an already heterogeneous city.  In San Jose, Tammy is merely a face in a crowd.  

Oh, but what a face. Tanned and clear, her face exposes dimples whenever she shares her beautiful smile.  Her long, straight black hair with sun-bleached streaks distracts you from the fact that she's only 5'4".  Her square shoulders and slim build are the result of years of surfing and clean living.  The sparkle in her eye and her bright white smile peering out from those tan, dimpled cheeks reminded me of the Queen of Makaha, Rell Sunn.

But Tammy is so much more than just a beautiful surfer girl.  She is a wonderful person with some very special traits.  First and foremost, she's an anomaly, an amalgamation of traditional and contemporary cultures.  How do you classify Tammy?  She’s a female Vietnamese surfer practicing an ancient Hawaiian tradition in a very fast paced, multi-cultural California city.  Like her parents, Tammy has embraced a culture with vigor while never forgetting or neglecting her own.  Having fled Vietnam shortly after the fall of Saigon, Tammy’s parents immigrated to San Jose and worked hard to fit in.  While they jumped head first into American pastimes like beer and hotdogs and Giants baseball games, Tammy was drawn to the surf culture and adored icons like Tommy Curren, Martin Potter, and of course, Jeff Spicoli.  A number of years ago, I interviewed her and what follows much of our conversation and my insight into a very special and unique person.

How in the world did a Vietnamese girl, living in San Jose, get all caught up in surfing?
Well, let's see. My parents immigrated to San Jose after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and I was born here that same year.  After 10 years of sharing an apartment with another Vietnamese family, we moved into a duplex and the family who lived next door to us had a teenage son who surfed.  I couldn’t have been older than 10 years old at the time.  One day I was out riding my bike, bored out of my mind, when our neighbor’s son, Doug, came out of his house with a surfboard and began doing some ding repair in the front yard.  The board was a Pearson Arrow.  This was like 1985 or so, so it was definitely a thruster with lots of neon and covered with surf stickers. I mean covered!  He put on a dust mask and starting sanding away.
Of course, I didn't know what a surfboard was or what one even looked like.  Oh God, this is so embarrassing.  All I knew was that he looked like a doctor with that mask on so I asked Doug if I could "play" with him.  He gave me this funny, puzzled look but then I think he caught on because he laughed and handed me a dust mask.  He was probably 15 or so and was really cool for just giving me the time of day.  So I just kinda started from there, helping him do ding repairs for him and his friends.  

So you became his gremmie?
Yeah, although I prefer to think of it as "personal assistant!" I'd do some sanding, mix the catalyst and resin, fetch him the different grits of sand paper, cut fiberglass cloth and fin rope for him, all that stuff.  And, of course, clean up too.  Just what a 10 year old needs – acetone fumes! 

How did you get the nickname Hotlips?
This is so lame but, during this time M*A*S*H* reruns were on every night and I saw how important Hotlips was to all the doctors.  I actually kind of admired her because she kept the wheels on at the hospital and the base.  So I’d sit there over these boards on saw horses with my dust mask on.  I pretended it was a patient on an operating table and I’d even hold my hands held up like surgeons do so they don’t pass on any infections.  And because I was shorter than the guys I would just be covered in fiberglass dust, which I pretended was the patient’s blood.  I know, this is all so lame but I was like 10 years old!  Gimme a break!

Were you aware of the irony?  That Hotlips was an American woman fighting in the Korean War and you were a Vietnamese girl whose family fled from the Vietnam War? 
Not at the time, no.  And I don’t remember if I started modeling myself after her and the guys caught on to it or if they started calling me Hotlips and then I got it into it.  Either way, the role just seemed to fit.  Again, I was the one girl in this crew of goofball guys.  Really nice guys but all goof balls.  Whatever the case, I convinced myself that I was a really important part of Doug’s ding repair venture.  It really gave me a sense of purpose and, being just a kid with no friends my age, I now felt pretty important.

Next week I’ll post the remainder of my interview with Tammy.  In the meantime, may your waves be head high and glassy.