by Louise Rafkin
Riding Out a Midlife Crisis in a Southern California Surf Camp
On the evening of my recent and unpalatable 40th birthday, my head spinning after a single, scarily sweet pink cocktail, my choices seemed obvious: I could have a baby, buy a red sportscar or learn to surf. One night I seriously tried having a baby. It didn't happen. I took this as a Sign. Then, after some consideration, I discovered I didn't much care for red cars, sporty or otherwise. At 40, not learning to surf still rates as one of my biggest regrets.
Growing up in Southern California, my youth was spent on the beach, clad in a string bikini and puka shells, gazing out to sea where my brother or my boyfriends rode some of the best waves in the world. I timed my tanning sessions and applied lemon juice to my sun-bleached hair, ensuring me the identification of 'surfer chick,' despite never having ridden a board.'It's never too late to learn,' my brother said encouragingly, while declining to teach me. I decided to put the 'never too late' cliché to the test and signed up for surfing camp.
The Paskowitz family has been running surfing camps in my home town of San Clemente for 26 years. This clan of 11 - 'Doc', his gorgeous Mexican-Indian wife, Juliette, plus 8 boys and a girl - spent summers in the state park near where I grew up, the whole tribe living out of a 26-foot camper.
They are legendary as much for their wave-riding ability as for their unconventional ways - all the kids were home-schooled,winters were spent traveling or seeking good surf. The camp was originally commandeered by
'No worries,' he replies.
There are the waves to worry about, glassy and breaking rather smallish, but covered with ant-like, wetsuit-clad surfers - each one seemingly an expert at slicing the long, blue tubes.
Or maybe I'm worried because I look suspiciously like the women dropping off their kids. 'Have fun!' one calls as she drives off, dumping a 10-year-old surf aficionado on the sand.
'Are you, uh, a camper?' asks a tanned, Tahitian-looking Paskowitz. It takes me several days to figure out which Paskowitz is which, each has the charisma, quickness and kinetic energy of a Robin Williams. (A week with this pack of Paskowitz savants causes me to seriously question whether my brain was ruined by public schooling.)
I nod sheepishly and he points to a wide board at least twice my height in length. 'Suit up and take that one!'
Take it how, I wonder, attempting to don my wetsuit, an act akin to stuffing a sausage. In the midst of a gang of male youths all pouring themselves fluidly into their colorful rubber gear, I encase myself in the sausage suit only to discover I have to use the bathroom.
Some kind soul has schlepped my board to the water's edge. There, I join a nervous group of about 25, ranging in age from 8 to a dentist from Baltimore in his early 50s. There are several other females - teenaged girls in full make-up (waterproof, of course). Chit-chat reveals campers from as far away as Japan and England, some returning for their second or third time.
Just when I think I've made a terrible mistake, head beach instructor and former long-board surfing champion, Terry Sims, launches into a diatribe on safety. Stringy and weathered, Terry has been surfing for 34 of his 39 years. He outlines the rules: no paddling behind one another, no loitering in the shore break, turn upsidedown - 'like a turtle' - with your board if you're about to be slaughtered by a breaking wave. 'And you stand like this,' he says, demonstrating a long, low crouch, legs spread and backside in the air, a stance echoing the posture of a disgruntled stinkbug. One by one each camper is called upon to copy Terry's example, and when successful, is whisked into the surf alongside a cheery instructor. My heart starts thumping inside my tightly bound ribs when I realize that the only ones of us not yet 'chosen' are the gaggle of girls, the two other 'old guys' and me.
'Reminds me of high school gym class,' I murmur to the dentist, who seems not at all fazed by the whole brouhaha. Still, we wallflowers eventually demonstrate the kung-fu pose, jumping up in one fluid movement -- from prone to standing -- while leaving one foot firmly planted ont he rear of the board. On dry land this manouever is surprisingly easy and in minutes I'm struggling down the beach with an enormous board perched atop my head. Then, just as suddenly, I'm belly down and paddling out into actual surf.
Just as a primordial yelp starts to rise up inside, I'm hit by a crash of white water and my attention quickly turns to the horizon, where it stays most of the morning. Right then I discover the most fabulous thing about surfing: you can't think of anything else while doing it. The ocean is relentless. There's no time to fuss with the hair in my eyes, let alone worry about my overdue Visa bill.
'Paddle, paddle!' each counselor calls to his flock, and we do, though not always with success. Our fearless leaders help by pushing the tail ends of our boards. And then, wonder of wonders, after three ungraceful wipeouts, I am standing - yes - hunched over - yes - but actually riding a wave. I hear a chorus of whoops as I head for shore, but then I'm down. I quickly flounder up onto my board.
'Yahoo!' I yell and start paddling again.
Several hours later, over lunch under a big blue tent, about half of us are grinning, the other half groaning. 'Doc' spins a story of big-wave riding on Hawaii, while a constant stream of characters drift by - world famous surfers, former campers, surfing entrepreneurs and more fabulous Paskowitz'- adults, kids and babies.
During the afternoon session we are awarded nicknames. Eric, the kosher-keeping, Torah-reading high school grad from Long Island is dubbed 'The Tie-Dye Rabbi.'
James, a polite, model-pretty, mid-western college student with political aspirations becomes 'The President.'
'Paddle Weezie,' Jonathan yells at me, and I hear Izzy call, 'Weezie, this one's for the money!'
Oh well, no money for Weezie.
I manage a few short rides. My co-campers are also progressing. Little Scott from Manhattan, a charming young teen still in a teeny pre-teen body, slips onto a good 4-footer and stays upright. Seconds later his board shoots up out of the mush, but then he pops up smiling and waving both arms, thumbs and pinkies outstretched in the universal sign of surfing brotherhood.
By late-afternoon, delirious and so exhausted I can barely grip my board, I deem myself a danger to the village and let myself be washed in to shore. Back at the tent, our waterlogged group is buoyant and chummy, full ofcomradarie as if we'd all just survived some disaster. But there's been none.
Everyone is, to put it aptly, 'stoked.' The teens even have enough energy to flirt with each other, but we adults are spent.The Paskowitz campsite is several miles from the beach. Room-sized tents circle a fire-ring, and a running refrigerator sits between two scrub pines. Hellmut Goebl, the camp cook, a 21-year-old Austrian surf camp alumni, turns out a far from gourmet dinner (charred hamburgers and salad) but we'd eat shoe leather at this point.
While the teens position themselves in adjacent tents, I contemplate my sleeping situation. I could join the girls, but if my instincts and memory serve me well, they'll be staying up well past my bedtime, which, at the point, is imminent. I slither off to my mother's house, five minutes away, trying to assuage my guilt. I've done camp, I tell myself. Scout camp, winter camp, karate camp, cheerleading camp and a slew of other even more ridiculous camps. At 14 you can't wait to get away from your mother, but at 40, a mother sounds comforting. I can show her my bleeding ankle where a divot the size of a golf tee has been gouged by the fin of my board.
I'm well on my way to sympathy, a hot shower and a clean bed with 200-count cotton sheets, when I pass a couple guys coming off the beach with their boards. It's all I can do not to shout out, Hey, I'm a surfer too!
I go to bed with the echo of Terri's voice in my head. 'Paddle! Paddle!'
Then, at sunup, I race to the beach to check the waves. The perfect swell and weather holds all week. Terry assures me that my constant barrage of questions doesn't bug him. 'I get to re-live my childhood every day I'm out here,' he claims when asked whether he tires of dealing with so many demanding beginners.
I - we all - improve with every two-hour session. We're bonding and surfing and, when on dry land, rehashing our wipeouts and rides or listening to Doc spin almost unbelievable tales.
Ten-year-old Jonathan really stole an Israeli tank in the Sinai desert? Yes.
Once they only had $7 and a bag of beans during a hurricane in Florida and then were kicked out of their campground? Yes
My mid-life crisis - and for that matter, my life - begins to pale. By Wednesday I stop returning calls. On Thursday I don't even check my answering machine. By Friday I'm nearly convinced I should take advantage of the inflated real estate market, sell my house, move to Mexico, live out of a camper and follow the surf.
But first there's the contest. 'Mandatory paddle - out at 10 a.m.,' Abraham calls out the last morning of camp.
All week sweet, slow-eyed Abraham, 37, has shepherded the teen girls, and just because they stayed up late chatting up the boys doesn't mean they can weasel out of the contest. The judges - our instructors - have prepared the scoring sheets and announced the rules. For one hour we are to catch as many waves as possible, riding each as long as we can. Scoring will be on duration of ride, with a slight variable for matters of style.
We hit the water en masse.
I'm up, again and again, and it starts to feel comfortable - almost. Then, I 'pearl,' sending the nose of the board straight to the rocky bottom, and face planting right in front of everyone. Struggling through the foam, I recall Doc's basic philosophy. 'There is wisdom in the waves,' he has repeated all week. 'And sometimes you learn more from the wrong wave than the right wave.'
The President flies by. The dentist does a one-footed maneuver and somehow stays upright. Everyone is cheering for everyone. The flag drops, and the contest is over. After lunch, prizes are awarded to all, counting down from the last place. A fellow 40-something-year-old captures 28th, though due to an injury, he didn't even hit the water. Abe gets down to announcing the final placings and I'm shocked to still be in the running. Then, there are only two of us left. Suddenly I'm accepting the red second-place ribbon. Little Scott breaks into a victory dance. I'm just incredibly stoked, and even more so when I'm awarded Most Improved. Certainly my attitude has improved over the week, and so has my outlook on the second half of my life.