Posted by: Mark | March 22, 2010

Six Word Memoirs

I first heard about Six Word Memoirs about 3 years ago. I distinctly remember it: I was on a run along the Land’s End trail, which quite beautifully overlooks the San Francisco Bay, on a gorgeous sunny day, listening to an NPR podcast…and a piece came on from the guys at SMITH magazine who helped popularize the Six Word Memoir.

Since then, I’ve been a big fan. In the same way that I like Twitter for its restrictions on length, and the way it forces you to be creative in how to be dictionally efficient, I like Six Word Memoirs. Telling something pretty significant about yourself in only six words is no simple task, and yet I’ve assigned it to my students….without writing one myself. I know, it makes me a big hypocrite. Among the many reasons that I blog, I do so because I hope that it allows me to lead by example. I make my students write all of the time, so how convincing can I be if I am not practicing and honing my own craft?

I made a Prezi to introduce Six Word Memoirs. For those of you who don’t know what Prezi is, holy crap are you behind and do you need to learn about it, immediately. It basically makes Powerpoint look like it’s from the stone ages. It’s about as sexy as it gets when it comes to presentation tools, and forces you to be visually organized. I like it. Check out the Prezi itself by clicking this link (strike against Prezi is that it advertises that it can be embedded into blogs, but it appears that’s only true if you host your own blog, rather than have a wordpress.com blog. Zoinks!) to both get a better sense of what Six Word Memoirs are, and also to see Prezi in action.

So I’ve been thinking about my own Six Word Memoir, especially after my students came up with some pretty amazing ones. I’ve thought long and hard about my own, and I’ve decided that I can’t settle on just one. So I have two. I’m a cheater, I know. (Invalidates my whole “lead by example” load of crap from earlier.) I created one that is a visual, because some Six Word Memoirs come with visuals, and I’ve created one that is all text. I think they both sum me up pretty well. They’re supposed to stand alone without any explanation, so I won’t provide one.

The one with the picture:

And then, my six word memoir that is just text, albeit fancy text:

So there you have them. My two Six Word Memoirs. If you’ve been a fan of the concept, but haven’t written your own yet, why not leave a comment with your own. And if you want to get fancy and play with photoshop like I did, it’s even more fun. Not sure you can leave a .jpg as a comment though.

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Posted by: Mark | March 12, 2010

Escape to Alcatraz

In 1934, the prison on Alcatraz Island opened its doors as a federal penitentiary, and some of the most hardcore American criminals were shipped in to serve out their sentences. To boycott this, a teenage girl, whose name I can’t for the life of me find, swam to the island and back, just to prove that it’s possible. And if she could do it, escaping criminals could do it. She had no wetsuit. She had no boat support. She just did it. Various other women (apparently) followed suit, all to demonstrate that the swim was in deed very feasible, and that these hardened criminals were not as far from San Francisco as The Rock seemed to be.

The escape attempts from Alcatraz have literally become the stuff of movies, but the swim has captivated swimming enthusiasts for generations. Swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, about a mile as the crow flies but you are no crow flying, believe me, is a legendary challenge for open water swimmers. There are races all of the time, local swimming clubs like the Dolphin Club lead guided swims regularly, people in their 70s and in their teens accomplish the feat. It’s not no big deal, but it’s also, as that teenage girl proved 76 years ago, very possible.

So, when my friend and author Jaimal Yogis called me up on a Friday night, asking if I wanted to swim from Alcatraz with him two days later for a story he was writing, I didn’t think twice. Absolutely. I was game. It was going to be epic. We surfed at Ft. Point the night before and picked up our swimming wetsuits, and met at Aquatic Park on a beautiful Sunday morning to go for it.

We were not alone. We had arranged to meet Jaimal’s cousin Jamie Patrick, who is about as legendary as the swim itself is. He is an ultra-swimmer in the most ultra of ways. He has completed Ironmans, and in fact, once did a Triple Ironman. He is currently training to swim The Tahoe Triple, which would entail swimming across Lake Tahoe, long-ways, three times in a row. That would be a 66 mile swim, and would be a world record. The dude is nuts in the most inspiring of ways. Jamie brought along his buddy Greg Larsen, a respectable swimmer himself who just barely missed making it to the Olympics in 1992. Jamie’s friend Kelly English was also along, as our kayak boat support, and even she looked like she could kick my ass. In short, we were boys amongst men.

I don’t want to labor too much over the swim itself. Jaimal’s narrative story just got published today in The Bold Italic, and he’s an actual writer, so he tells the story much better than I can. A few quick highlights:
-We didn’t have a boat to get us out there, so we would actually be swimming to and from Alcatraz
-We got the tides totally wrong, and went out when the current was really bad
-We did not have a radio on our boat
-The cops showed up, when we were about halfway there, and made us go back for not having a permit
-It was awesome

Beyond this, I do want to point out two parts that really struck me from the swim.

First off, meeting Jamie. As far as I’m concerned, a guy like Jamie is in a class of his own. Very, very rare individuals like Jamie Patrick deserve their own subspecies of humanity, because they operate on a different level. The guy lives and breathes exercise, pretty much constantly. I like to consider myself fairly athletic. I grew up a swimmer and soccer player, and I can go for a 10 mile run at the drop of a hat, or do the length of an Alcatraz swim without training for it. Compared to guys like Jamie, that is nothing. He does this because it seems to be part of his DNA and blood stream. After we swam, we all stood around to shoot the shit, and stories just started pouring out of Jamie….like doing a relay race across the English Channel (his partner was Greg, who swam with us that morning), and open water swims in big surf in Hawaii, and his Triple Ironman. (3x each of the legs of an ironman, back to back….on a closed course! Meaning, for the run, which was after having swam 10 miles and biking around 700, he would run straight out for a mile, turn around, run back, and do that back-and-forth for THREE STRAIGHT MARATHONS). He has two major goals. The first, as I said, is to swim Lake Tahoe 3 times, and after that, he wants to accomplish 7 major channel crossings, which is considered the accomplishment of a lifetime for an open water swimmer.

To hear all of this stuff is sweet, but to shake his hand and look in his eyes as he talks about his concerns that swimming for so long disorients your balance, vision, and even loosens your bones out of their sockets, is a different thing entirely. I’ve been around some amazing athletes before. My father-in-law played water polo in the Olympics, twice. A former colleague of mine Kelly Couch is a top-ranked triathlete. There was something a bit different with Jamie, because not only was he really good at something, he was really good at doing that something for very long stretches of time. I think about the mental focus it takes me to get through an hour long run, and have trouble wrapping my head around the concept of doing that for 20 hours or so.

Are humans meant to do this? I’m pretty sure they are not. Evolutionarily speaking, we are not meant to swim for 35 hours straight. (That’s how long Jamie expects the Tahoe swim to take.) But that’s what’s cool about it. He is proudly pushing human physical abilities to their absolute maximum. There’s something about it all that gets me really excited, damn near giddy.

The second thing that struck me on our swim was a surprising sense of defiance in the face of a clampdown against just being able to go out and do something. We were sternly reprimanded by the Dolphin Club for being renegade swimmers, and were sent home by the cops. For swimming in the San Francisco Bay. For the first time, I found myself thinking back to “the good old days” (which I wasn’t alive to experience) when there were far fewer restrictions on pretty much everything. You could hitchhike, camp on the side of the road, drive without a seat belt, and swim to Alcatraz whenever you wanted. Now we have to hike on trails with our dogs on a leash, we have to get permits to fish, and in general can’t do a whole lot of things without getting permission. I of course get it, and in general agree with restrictions like this, but it was a first for me to be on the wrong side of the police tape that menacingly implied “Do Not Cross,” and I didn’t particularly like it. I was ready to flip off the cop and call him a fascist pig, but he was just making sure we didn’t get run over by a Chinese freighter. As illogical I know it was, I still felt a bit of the old punk-rock, DIY adrenaline surge of going out and doing it, regardless of the rules.

So, read Jaimal’s story about the whole thing, check out Jamie’s website for the Tahoe Triple, go see my flickr photostream for more pictures, and go climb an unchartered mountain or drive the wrong way on one-way street to keep your rebellious streak alive.

Posted by: Mark | February 26, 2010

100% Endorphins!

I did something for the first time today. I joined a gym. I typically like to get my exercise in a more rugged way, like bodysurfing or running on the beach barefoot, but we’re getting to the time of year when the wind starts blowing consistently, and although the sun will be shining, beach activity will be less enjoyable due to the swirling sand. So I figure, why not, let’s pull the trigger, and do it.

I literally searched on my iPhone’s map and found a handful of nearby gyms. And Oh My God, did we score. I have found the best gym, ever. This place is amazing. So amazing that I will leave it unnamed here. I think this gym might be one of San Francisco’s best kept secrets, and I don’t want to be the one to share it. I don’t want to spoil its magic by inviting people in. So I’m not naming it, just describing it. And I am absolutely not checking in on Foursquare there, gym rat badges be damned.

This is not our gym. Not even close

Where do I start? First off, it’s unbelievably cheap. There are three monthly options, and the cheapest is $10 a month. The second tier, which we opted for, is $19 a month, but if we go 3 times a week for 3 months, we get that reduced to $10 a month. (Which, by the way, is a great idea for a gym. Reward your frequent members with lower rates, incentivize them to work out.) That means that if I do go 3 times a week, for a month, I’m going 12 times a month, and subsequently, am paying less than $1 per visit to go to the gym. It’s almost free.

Second off, and I probably should have started with this point, as it is the first thing you see, is the gym’s aesthetics. It’s located next to a store called “Hollywood Eyebrows,” which I think gives you a good sense of things. Mirrors everywhere, of course, but it has wall-to-wall bright red carpeting. Walking into the gym is like walking into a time machine, I’d maybe even call it a Gym Time Machine, which could be the sequel for Hot Tub Time Machine. They have standing tanning booths in this gym, which are free. I can only imagine the amount of cancer you can get in those things. There is about a 3 foot gap between the mirrors on the walls and the ceilings, and those are filled with vaguely American Gladiator-esque blue and red striped banners. I’d say it’s like 40 yards long, 30 yards wide, with a women’s only section for the women who are creeped out by working out with guys around (yet another awesome feature) and a really bizarre little cubby side room for “personal training.”

All of this points to the third awesome feature: the people. This gym is happily devoid of platinum blonde trophy wives with the Chinese character for “strength” tattooed on their low backs. It is instead filled with Chinese people who want to work on their strength, mostly old Chinese people, the type who find tremendous pleasure in finding good bargains the same way that my wife and I do. In addition to the Asian senior citizens (which comprise about 70% of the gym membership) you have some high school kids trying to get stronger, a couple of actual meatheads, but those seem incredibly rare, and so on and so forth. Honestly, it’s like Average Joe’s from the movie Dodgeball, but with red carpeting and standing tanbooths.

We signed up, and my wife wanted to take a 75 minute cardio/bodysculpting class. I figured this is the day of First’s, so why not take my first cardio/bodysculpting class. I’m planning on doing a big swim on Sunday, so I didn’t want to lift myself into useless soreness. So into the enclosed, but still carpeted, space for the cardio/bodysculpting class we went.

The stereo system was pumping a cheesy remix of a cheesy pop song. Our teacher was probably 55 years old. Our classmates probably averaged about 65 years old. I was the only male. We were in the small minority of people for whom English was our first language. I was in disbelief about the journey I was undertaking. But I did it.

Our teacher counted out as we punched the air, pulled invisible ropes while bouncing, and did numerous version of jumping jacks. She was particularly fond of counting “seven!” her “fours” were more like “fouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuur!” and “two” was apparently the same thing as “zero,” because at “two” she’d change to the next exercise. It became pretty clear that she only had about 15 minute worth of moves, and would spin us to face a different wall and look into a different mirror to distract us from realizing that we were doing the same things over-and-over again. I recognized about 60% of the moves we were doing from the scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where Joan of Arc invade a mall gym to teach aerobics. (It’s the first 10 seconds, and then again at 2;28-2;36 and then again at 3:25-3:35 , but it’s worth watching the whole clip to re-experience a slice of heaven. And if you haven’t seen this movie, you are a lost soul.)

About 20 minutes into the class, I realized I couldn’t stop smiling. I was loving every second of this class. I felt like I was 4 years old, doing ridiculous dance moves in my carpeted basement with my siblings, dancing around to Sesame Street records while my mom videotaped us for posterity’s sake. (Those videos, which would have been youtube gold if youtube existed back then, are invaluable in my family.) I was carefree, the old chinese lady next to me in pink leggings and an oversized bright yellow t-shirt was carefree as she flung her arms around somewhat maniacally, the teacher was carefree, the woman in way too much lipstick who kept smiling at herself in the morning was carefree…we were all enraptured with this moment of complete and total carelessness. It was amazing. It was 100% endorphins.

I can’t wait to go back to another cardio/bodysculpting class in San Francisco’s best kept secret gym.

Posted by: Mark | February 22, 2010

To Be Or Not To Be…Famous

Fame is such a mystifying concept. I’d argue that the desire to be famous is an inescapably American construct. This is not to say that only Americans want to be famous. That is far from the truth. It’s probably more accurate to claim that it’s a deep human desire to be known and recognized. But the uniqueness of the American emphasis on “rugged” individualism and romantic notions of rags-to-riches stories has ingrained in our culture, deeper than others, a willingness to in many circumstances to anything to be famous.

I’ve been curious about fame for several years. In fact, back at Johns Hopkins I wrote my masters thesis on Izzy Einstein, a prohibition agent who was creatively busting bars for illegally selling booze at the same time that the idea of the “celebrity” and “movie star” was invented, and became an unlikely prohibition agent celebrity. (Talk about an oxymoron.) I think I became interested in this because I did my research right around the same time that William Hung became an international celebrity for his audition on “American Idol.”

OK first off, I’ve never watched “American Idol” before, but William Hung’s terrible audition video became a major viral video, one of the first that I ever came across.

I may be giving William Hung too much credit (but as a grad student at Berkeley, the guy is clearly no moron), but I think he knew what he was doing. I think he knew that if he was terrible and ultra-nerdy, at a time when something like his audition video wouldn’t just be talked about the next morning but would be forwarded around through email, he’d actually become an American Idol. And that’s exactly what he did. I remember reading that he has performed at half-time shows at basketball games, he’s got music videos on youtube that people watch like mad, and so on and so forth. For being bad, he actually got really famous.

So with the esoteric pondering aside, I’d like to look into this idea a little bit more. Being bad, and still getting really famous…because you know that you’re bad. Most recently we have yet another American Idol audition that had similar explosive interest, “Pants on the Ground.” Another case of being bad, and getting extremely well-known as a result of it. There are versions of this song that you can buy on iTunes. As my grandfather would put it, guys like Pants on the Ground and William Hung need to be hooked up to a constant morphine drip to prevent themselves from laughing so hard at how they are cashing in for their antics.

There’s something nice about this. Being talentless but still making it. However, there’s also something about this that makes me want to puke. In fact, there is a rather substantial list of things that I would absolutely refuse to do, regardless of how “famous” they might make me. And I’ve done some dumb stuff to get recognized. When I was at Georgetown, I used to act in an orientation skit that every incoming freshman saw. I did this for two years. The skit was about introducing issues that they as college kids might encounter: binge drinking, academic dishonesty, etc. In the skit, I played a date rapist. Repeat: date rapist. Which means that there are two academic classes at Georgetown, the class of ’05 and ’06, for whom almost the entire 1,500 kids in each grade, I was first introduced to them as a date rapist. The first month or so in both of those years, drunk freshman would see me and hoot and holler with their friends: “We’re at a party with the rapiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiist!” Not exactly what I had anticipated. However, I’ll admit it. I still loved the recognition and attention. =)

So anyway, below are some of the things I’ve seen lately that I would refuse to do, even if they meant I would get recognized. Some things are just not worth it.

1) The Freecreditreport.com band. These guys are the biggest bunch of losers I’ve ever seen. They have taken the concept of the commercial jingle and have gutted out any soul that possibly existed and pissed all over it. I don’t know any of their names, but if I saw any of them walking down the street, I’d recognize them. Probably the worst part is how at every point in the commercials, the band converges and the three members shoot each other a look of profound satisfaction, with a sense of “Oh yeah, we’re really rocking it right now. Our music is HOT!” No, it’s not. You guys suck, and now you’re publicly know for sucking just because you wanted people to listen to your music.

2) Ice Dancing. Ice dancing is like JV figure skating, which is sort of like saying you’re on the JV chess team. The Olympics are totally rad, but dude. I can’t believe that when I just want to watch some bad ass hockey, or downhill skiing where skiiers fearlessly throw themselves down the side of a mountain at 50 mph, instead I have to tune into ice dancing. So basically, it’s like figure skating but you’re not allowed to do jumps and twists. What. The. Hell. And here’s the kicker. A lot of the partners are actually siblings, yet they act in a really seductive and sexy way in dancing, akin to how people who are not siblings would dance. It’s just creepy. All to get into the Olympics.

3) being a hot dude/chick as an extra in any TV show/movie. This one is pretty bad. It’s like you’re not willing to actually go and pose nude, but you’re willing to stand around hardly clothed in a show or a movie that is made by a substantial studio as an extra. I think girls who want to be actresses in Hollywood have this opportunity much more than guys do, but it’s pretty bad. Like I said, if you want to sell your body out to be famous, at least go all the way and make a name for yourself, rather than stand in the background of a movie shot wearing just a bikini just to (barely) get yourself in the credits.

4) working for FoxNews. Truth is, I’d hate to work for most cable news networks. 24-hour news networks, for the most sake, suck. The desire to be breaking, and in front of the camera to break it, makes for some absolutely horrific journalism.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are several things that would absolutely hilarious to be famous for. I’ll start my brief list with curling. I’d love to be like the young I-know-what-I’m-doing-and-you-old-farts-can’t-teach-me-anything curling guy who really messes with the dignified high-brow curling culture, assuming there is one. Hot-dog eating contests would be another way that would be awesome to be famous. That Japanese dude who puts down like 60 dogs in 10 minutes is the man. And finally, being a competitive show dog handler, for many of the same reasons that I’d like to be in curling. Imagine how sick it would be to show a dog while having a big blue mohawk.

In general though, there are some things that are worth it, and some things that aren’t. And while I can satiate my base American desire for being famous with a blog and by posting all of my thoughts on Twitter, I’ll take anonymity over being Apollo Anton Ohno any day.

Posted by: Mark | February 14, 2010

The Mavericks Contest

Yesterday I drove down to Moss Beach, parked, and then biked the last few miles to Mavericks for the highly anticipated big wave surfing contest. The conditions were ideal. It was sunny, warm, and the haze had burned off. The swell was huge, with early speculation hoping that the conditions could make for the biggest waves for a paddle-in contest, ever. These hopes turned out to be true, with wave faces pushing 50ft.

picture taken from SFGate.com

I went to Mavericks, despite the crowds I knew I would have to confront, despite the fact that the break is so far off the coast that you have to watch the waves on a jumbo screen to really see the action anyway, because I wanted to be a part of the energy of the contest.

The day turned out to get international coverage, and not just because of the surfing, but because of the storm surge that resulted in rampant injuries to spectators who were swept into tents, the awards podium, steel barriers, you name it. I happened to be perched on the cliffs at Pillar Point and got a birds-eye view of the fiasco, and it was as chaotic as the videos on youtube make it out to be.

The contest coincided with the first day of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and the chatter online did well to capitalize on that point. A lot of proud surfers were claiming that the Mavs contest was “the real” Olympics. I definitely think there is one major similarity between these two sporting events: relative obscurity. The Winter Olympics consist of sports that I don’t care about, at all, for 99.99% of my life. And then all of the sudden, for two weeks every four years, it becomes really important to me who wins the individual luge, or who is the best at the biathlon, which pairs skiing and shooting. (As far as I’m concerned, that is the most random pairing of sports you can ask for. I propose to the IOC that for the next Olympics games, they include two other biathlons: speed skating followed by speed braiding, and curling followed by a contest as to who can hold their breath the longest.) As for Mavericks, it’s pretty similar. I personally care a lot about surfing, but the vast majority of people who see the news of the contest don’t give a crap about surfing, they just tune in for the thrill of it.

The same even goes for many of the spectators who were there. I’d speculate that most of the people who got hit by that rogue wave don’t have much ocean experience, otherwise they would have read the signs (wet ground, high tide, high surf advisory) and would have gone for higher ground. My buddy and I were perched on the cliff, and two girls scrambled up behind us (with one of the girls rather shamelessly grabbing my friend’s inner thigh to help propel herself up) who had no idea about what was going on. That’s cool, I’m not being disparaging about a novice audience enjoying the spectacle.

What I am disparaging, however, is the way that the Mavericks webcast fell flat on its face in its ability to engage its audience. After the rogue wave smashed through the crowds, organizations starting posting to Twitter advice to spectators to stay at home, and to watch online. I was already at the contest when this advice went you, but had to drag myself away after the first heats to get back to the city. I quickly flipped on the internet broadcast of the contest when I got home, and within about 5 minutes, completely lost interest in it. The webcast was a far cry from the experience of being there. How did webcast suck? Let me count the ways.

-First off, the camera work. About 90% of the footage was of the surfers in the  line-up. That seems to make sense, because it focuses on the surfers, and that is where the action is. But waves come in sets, with lulls sometimes lasting a long time in between those sets. As such, for the most time what you saw was unidentifiable bodies floating over huge waves. Often times the camera would zoom in to try and provide detail for who was paddling, but the lip of an inside wave would obscure the view, and you’d get a fuzzy shot of an empty wave breaking. The other shots that they would cut to were: the judges booth, which they may as well have had a camera pointed at a barn to broadcast the paint as it dried, and the commentators. Which leads to…

-The commentators were pretty bad. I don’t mean any personal disrespect, but it was pretty painful to listen to the contest. I do blame the camera work too though. As I said, the overwhelming majority of the webcast featured empty waves. If you’re constantly on mic, what the hell do you talk about during empty waves? As it turns out, pretty much anything and everything. However, the way the commentators struggled for things to talk about, it’s like they didn’t expect that they would have so much down-time to fill. There were a few “interviews,” but they tended to be just as scattered.

-The scoring was completely and totally cryptic. The judges table was a black hole of information. The audience had no sense of what judges were looking for, what points guys were getting for scores, and why surfers advanced. The heat would happen, and then the three advancing names would get posted. That’s it.

-In general, the best way to summarize this is that the Mavs webcast did not reach out and engage the non-surfing audience. Even as a surfer, I would have appreciated some of the features of the Olympics broadcast that makes it such compelling TV watching. Because let’s be honest, it is an absolute blast to watch the Olympics. We get personal bios during the downtime, we learn about new sports, we get back stories…in general, we personalize the experience of the sport and the competition. Sitting on my couch, the Olympics really matter to me. I have personal reasons for wanting people to win. The Mavs webcast wasn’t able to do that. It put the magnificent power of the waves and the surfers as the sole focus of entertainment, which unfortunately wasn’t enough for it to be compelling watching.

Since I was at the contest, I got to watch Ken “Skindog” Collins celebrate with his kids, and splash around in the water with them. I got to hear a girl cheer for “daddy” during a different heat. I got to bask in the post-heat STOKE (totally deserving all caps) shared between Alex Martins and Carlos Burle, as they bantered in English and Portuguese about their session. Honestly, those were the best moments of the day for me. I saw some sick waves, but those will be re-broadcast in higher definition than I experienced from the bluffs, even with binoculars. But the engagement isn’t in watching small specks of men fly down the faces of massive waves, it is in humanizing these guys. It’s in sharing their stories so that we get to know them, and as we faintly make out a bright blue jersey as it bounces down the face of the wave, we really feel for the surfer as it was our wipe-out too. I hope that in the future, the organizers learn that the engaging drama of the contest lies just as much on-land as it does in the water, or in pre-recorded interviews or vignettes.

If they can successfully capture that part of the contest, then I’ll consider staying off the bluffs and watching online in the future. But for now, I plan on going back to the next contest in person, rogue waves be damned.

Posted by: Mark | February 12, 2010

Mind-Fast

One of the downsides of returning to work has been an exponential increase of things that occupy my mental landscape, and so my writing has been sidetracked.

One of the many upsides of returning to work has been re-immersing myself in a community firmly grounded in Benedictine wisdom.

A quick history lesson: St. Benedict lived in Italy just around the fall of the Roman Empire, as the world was crumbling into chaos and corruption. St. Benedict wrote a set of rules for monastic life to try and make sense of all the mess, particularly within the Church, and his text has remained unchanged while respected and followed throughout the world for the last 1,500 years.

Roman Catholicism is not a groovy religion to the public. It’s so much more hip to be “spiritual but not religious” than it is to be Catholic. I believe this is because the hipster world has not sampled the Benedictine flavor.

Today we had our annual faculty retreat, in which we reflect upon one of Benedict’s many spiritual themes that are presented in his Rule. Each year’s themes is different; today it was stability. The retreat was led by a monk and a self-proclaimed hermit, who has lived his solitary lifestyle for 16 years. (To be fair, he also was a Franciscan friar for 2 decades before that, so he has perspective on a non-hermit’s life.) (It is so hard to not think of Kermit the Frog whenever I type “hermit…” for obvious, rhyming reasons.) (It’s not easy being green.)

When you are in the presence of a soft-spoken hermit, you listen. It doesn’t matter your faith background or your shoe size, you listen. Fr. Daniel was pretty amazing in his opening remarks, so much so that he not only inspired this blog post, but has permanently tweaked my vocabulary. I was furiously jotting notes in the hour-long reflection he shared, and here are a few stand-outs:

“To acknowledge one’s ignorance is a wholesome thing to do.”
“We hope to be humble enough to open ourselves to wisdom.”
“Stability should not be confused with the counter-productive stasis of fundamentalism.”
“Asceticism is refusing to default to the negative.”
“To mind-fast is to abstain from an attitude.”

In the four months that I took off from work, I was constantly shown the power and importance of deep personal reflection. I wrote about it pretty regularly here, analogizing my meditation to surfing and barefoot running. I read Saltwater Buddha and then met and befriended Jaimal Yogis. He lived in a Zen monastery for over a year, and his climactic metaphor between surfing and Zen meditation is that in our minds, we are all surfers, our thoughts are the waves, and we can choose to ride the ones that we want and let the bad ones pass us by. He expands upon this in the following video clip, which is a legit enough youtube clip that it’s preceded by a commercial, which you know makes it legit. None of my youtube videos are preceded by commercials, that’s for sure.

In the clinical world of psychiatry, this is all akin to cognitive behavior therapy, in which you recognize a negative thought pattern, and deliberately interrupt it. (aka, if you start thinking “I look fat in these pants,” and you know that a thought like that will spiral into more and more self-criticism, you go and pet your dog to interrupt the thought pattern.)

Fr. Daniel, Jaimal Yogis, St. Benedict, the Buddha, Thomas Merton, my therapist–these people are all speaking slightly different dialects, but they’re all espousing the same message. In other words, the most modern of medical science, the grooviest of surfer widsom, and the most ancient of Christian philosophies are all treatises on the same point. That’s pretty incredible.

What to call this message? The Buddhists call it mindfulness, which is also used by psychiatrists. I like that, but I really fell in love with the phrase Fr. Daniel used: mind-fast. The concept of fasting is common to all religions, and is a deliberate deprivation of food. That’s great and all, but why not a fasting of the mind? How much more powerful to not just restrain from having a milkshake, but abstaining from harboring jealousy, or rage, or fear? To recognize the feeling as it arrives, but to choose to let it pass you by. Mind-fast. It’s also dictionally cunning, as the varied definitions of “fast” most immediately evoke images of speed, rather than slow calmness.

Towards the end of the retreat, we were given a blank canvas and some paint and were encouraged to create an image that symbolized stability. My immediate thought was of a wave, most immediately for the personal reason of how therapeutic the ocean is for me. More than that, still frames of waves are deceptively stable. They freeze a process that is tremendously dynamic and chaotic. Surfing a wave demands that you synchronize with that chaos, and requires balance and stability. It felt right. I’m no artist and I never will be, but I’m happy with the painting I created.

To repeat: to mind-fast is to abstain from an attitude. What powerful simplicity, what freedom there is to gain from restrictions!

Posted by: Mark | January 11, 2010

Going Big at Ocean Beach

I am comfortable, based on my experience surfing at Ocean Beach, describing myself as a big wave surfer. While I haven’t surfed at Waimea Bay or Mavericks (with a litany of excuses for not surfing Mavs), those who have caught OB when it is big know that while it may not have international notoriety as a big wave spot, it certainly packs a punch. I’ve caught OB when it is maxing out in the 20-25ft range, and pretty much paddle out as long as I see that at least one other person is going for it somewhere along the beach.

Big wave riding is not necessarily all that fun to watch. It’s basically just guys who look like ants go straight on waves that look big, but their size and power is truly incomprehensible from the shore. Many writers far more talented than me have described riding big waves, and many surfers far more talented than me have discussed riding waves much bigger than I have ridden, but the truth is that “20ft,” “30ft,” and “50ft” are just numbers. You can’t understand it until you are in the water, paddling out into a wave face that eclipses the horizon, or getting monsooned by the spray coming out the back and the whipping wind that the mere movement of all that water creates. It’s unfathomable, and in fact, so unique that I often forget the power of big waves when I’m on land, watching them break.

I’ve posted the picture above on this blog before. It is not of me. It’s of a friend of mine…I grabbed it from his facebook page. It was taken over a year ago around Taraval Street, and is the biggest wave I’ve seen caught on camera at OB. I can say with pride that I was out there the same day, actually close to the same time, and caught 1 1/2 waves. It was the biggest I’ve ever ridden at OB. The 1/2 comes from a harrowing wipe-out….I dropped into a really macking set wave that must have been over 20ft in the face, and as I got to the bottom to dig my fins and rail into the face to turn, my board skidded out underneath me and I found myself sprawled on my back, bouncing down the face of the wave as I looked up and saw the lip unloading onto me. It was terrifying.

If the tone of this post so far seems a bit arrogant, that arrogance come from the defensive stand-point of a big wave surfer who knows he has lost his mojo for the big stuff.

Surfing is a physically demanding activity, but when the surf gets big, it becomes more of a head-game than anything else. The basics are about the same: you paddle out, you see a wave, you turn around and paddle into it, stand up, and then ride it. The variable that changes, obviously the size and power, is what makes big wave riding so mental. When you make it through into the line-up, you are physically and mentally tense, like a sprinter at the start of a race, anticipating the starter’s gun. Any minute a set wave could come through, catch you inside, and give you a pounding. Any minute the perfect wave could come right your way, and the stage is set for your big leap down the face. There is no relaxing in the line-up…I can only compare it to the mentality I have read described by soldiers as they wait for battle. After a session, it’s not necessarily my arms that are tired, but my whole being, as my brain finally relaxes from its relentless existence in fight-or-flight mode.

The waves are cyclical and pattern based, and I’ve noticed that my mental preparedness for big waves takes on a similar nature. The summer at Ocean Beach is flat, and when fall shows up with fun little glassy waves, the surf community goes into party mode and surfs a ton. It’s pure fun, minimal consequence. The first big swell shows up, and I dust off my big wave board to go get some bigger action, and my adrenaline is firing so hard in anticipation that I hardly hesitate. As the seasons shift into winter, and the waves become more consistently big, that adrenaline balances out, and sessions are peppered with epic waves and disastrous wipe-outs. The deeper you get into the season, the more you remember some of the wipe-outs, and the harder it becomes to mentally sharpen yourself to the situation. And eventually, just like the waves die out, you find that you’re not game for it anymore. You can’t shake the hesitation to take-off, you can’t talk yourself into it anymore. You’re done for the season.

I hit my big-wave stride in early December, and surfed the crap out of a swell that will forever be memorable to me. (The picture above is from that swell, posted on stokereport by a rad local photographer who goes by the handle vonstanger.) I had no hesitation, I was in physical and mental shape, and I felt completely in sync with the ocean. This season I have grown to embrace the spirituality and mysticism of the ocean, and I felt my spirit was willing and able to serve me some of the best waves I’ve ever caught.

Since then, I feel that I am losing, or have already lost, my mojo for big waves. I learned that phrase from a buddy of mine who surfs Mavericks regularly. He says he lost his mojo relatively early on this season, over Thanksgiving. You can see the wipe-out in the video that follows (his wave starts at around 0:45). He hits a phantom chop, and then cartwheels down the face. As he tells it, that first wipe-out was the easiest part. What followed off camera is a six-wave set that pounded him worse with each wave, and eventually got his leash tangled around his legs so he couldn’t move them. He was dangerously close to getting dragged through the rocks when a lifeguard on a jetski puttered through and saved his ass. Understandably, an experience like that would haunt you, and going back out at Mavericks might not be as thoughtless as it was before.

For me, I think I lost my mojo when I went to New York City for Christmas. I had been surfing with so much regularity before the trip, that a 10-day interruption threw my rhythm off in an irreversible way. I came home, and got heavy into bodysurfing, and didn’t ride a board much.

A new swell hit two days ago, and I paddled out with a friend of mine. Inside my head I was a bit cocky as I was suiting up, already counting the waves I had yet to even paddle out to catch, and was welcomed by a brutal pounding in my paddle out. It took me close to 40 minutes, and actually is a cool anecdote about the spirit of the ocean. At about minute 35, when my arms were screaming for me to quit and my pride was sufficiently stuffed down into my booties, I began to accept that I might get denied. It would be the first denial I have ever gotten at OB, and I was trying to figure out why. Why today, on a day that wasn’t nearly as big as some of the biggest days I had surfed, was I unable to paddle into the line-up? As I kept churning and thinking, I finally admitted that it was my arrogance, and lack of respect and humility, that had screwed things up for me. No sooner had that thought crossed my mind when the waves settled into a lull, and I snuck through.

Even though I got out, I got skunked. Badly. My first wave, a right, I spent most of the time tentatively making sure my feet were securely placed on the board. I had no control over the situation. Then my second wave, a left, popped out of nowhere and without fully thinking, I turned and went for it, on a wave that was way too steep. I somehow got hung up in the lip for a second, before my board slid out from underneath me and I free-fell 15ft down the face. I popped up, my mind scattered, and I whimpered my way back into shore.

I surfed big waves again today. It was bigger than I had thought, and the whole time I was out there I kept toying with feeling like I had lost my mojo, all the while trying to remind myself that I had surfed waves this size dozens of times before, so what the hell was I so scared about. The mind is a difficult thing to control, but your mind needs to be in control to ride big waves. I let about 5 perfect ones pass me by, waves a month ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about and would have loved riding. I ended up catching a decent right, followed by a decent left, but that was after pulling back from countless waves bigger and more perfect than the ones I caught.

I had been out about an hour and a half, and was drifting over into a rip, and knew I was ready to get out. I had mentally written much of this post while out in the water with my thoughts about losing my mojo tormenting me. I noticed that the rip was created some ugly surface chop to the wave faces as they were breaking, and wanted to just get out safe and sound. I finally got a beautiful peak served up to me, I turned and stroked to get into the wave, and as I felt its power surge beneath me I jumped up to my feet. I flew down the face, constantly gaining speed, and just as I was getting ready to hit bottom I hit one of the bumps I had been observing. When a turkey is done, that little thermometer thing *pops.* I basically did the exact same thing. I was popped off my board, as if Ocean Beach seemed to be the oven telling this turkey – “Sorry brother, you’re done.”

I will paddle out for any other big swell that comes through this season, but I don’t know how well I’ll do. I need to accept that my big wave riding mentality has peaked, and I’m in the lull that inevitably follows a peak. I don’t want to accept it, but I think I need to.

Sorry folks, I’m done.

Posted by: Mark | January 8, 2010

Bodysurfing with a Hand Plane

This past summer my wife and I drove across country to my home state of Delaware. One of the many positives to come out of that trip is that while I was home, I grabbed a pair of Churchill swim fins that I have owned for probably 15 years to bring back to San Francisco. The subsequent result has been a personal revolution of the wave-riding experience.

I first bodysurfed Ocean Beach in August on a mid-sized, funky day. I hadn’t bodysurfed in quite some time, but had an absolute blast. There is something profoundly different about riding a wave without a board, and I loved it. Since then I’ve probably bodysurfed about a dozen times at Ocean Beach, and have became so enamorate with it that I put a hand plane, specifically one made by SF surfboard shaper Danny Hess, on my Christmas list. I got what I wanted.

I’ve been posting about my bodysurfing experiences on Stoke Report, and have gotten a lot of questions, so I thought I’d address them here in more depth…why I like bodysurfing, some of the differences between bodysurfing and surfing, gear, you name it.

First off, a few disclaimers. Bodysurfing is no joke. I love it, but I also speak as a guy who grew up swimming competitively, and I still coach swimming and water polo. Surfing at Ocean Beach is an exhausting experience; bodysurfing at Ocean Beach ratchets the physical demands up a notch. The fins certainly help, especially when duckdiving. When a wave comes through, you just swim down to the bottom and wait it out. However, you are constantly swimming. There is no board to sit on or rest on, and so it’s tough. The rip tides don’t disappear when you’re bodysurfing, so if you want to give it a shot, make sure you are comfortable with your swimming ability. This addresses a point someone asked me about getting cold. You’re fully in the water the whole session, but since you’re moving the whole time, you stay just as warm as you would while surfing, if not more so.

Pro’s of Bodysurfing
-I like that it’s a little bit more demanding physically than surfing. I get a more complete work-out, and I like the feeling of having to drag yourself out of the water from being so surfed-out.
-Surfing is extremely fun, especially when the waves peel and offer long rides. However, there are often times conditions when surfing isn’t that fun. For example, when waves close-out (meaning, the whole wave breaks at once), there’s not much to do when you surf, and often times you can break your board in these circumstances. Bodysurfing was made for close-outs. Without having a big board attached to your leg by a leash, you don’t have to worry about getting smacked by your board or breaking it when you pull into thumping close-outs. As a result, pretty much every wave that you ride turns into a barrel. Most of them close-out, but they’re still barrels, and there’s nothing sweeter than looking into a barrel. Believe me. Nothing sweeter.
-It’s beautiful to glide down the face of the wave more-or-less face first. The whole experience seems amplified. So much of my body is on the face of the wave, it seems like a more intimate experience with the wave’s energy.
-Hand plane bodysurfing adds a whole new dimension. My first half dozen sessions were naked–not literally naked, but it was just me, my wetsuit, and fins. A typical ride, especially on big days, was to skip down the face of the wave, tuck into the barrel once I hit bottom, and enjoy the view as the wave ate me for lunch. A hand plane makes waves much more manageable. When you bodysurf, your body creates a tremendous amount of drag, and so it’s hard to get a lot of speed…hence getting crushed in the barrel so regularly. However, with a hand plane, the plane of your hand becomes 3 times as big, and you find yourself pushing your body up out of the water, and creating a ton more speed. Your speed becomes almost the exact same as that of the peeling wave, and as such, you stay slotted in the barrel for a while. Surfers have to stall to get into the barrel; while hand planing, you just go, and you’re in, and can often come out. I am surprised by how long my rides have been since I’m hand-planing, sometimes lining all the way up into the inside. Just as long as on a surfboard. So with a handplane, not only do you get epic barrels, but you can actually get some long rides too.
[A note about hand planes: you can experiment with many different objects as hand planes. As a kid, I saw a guy who rounded out the nose of a broken surfboard as his hand plane. I’ve used flip-flops before, and I’ve definitely seen cafeteria trays used. The DIY nature of hand planes is totally epic, but I must also say, wave riding with a beautiful wooden hand plane crafted by a masterful carpenter like Danny Hess is also pretty epic.]
-The wave count is higher. I think it’s almost a 1:2 ratio. For every one ride I get in a typical surfing session, I get two rides in a bodysurfing session.

Con’s of Bodysurfing
-The other afternoon I was out on a fairly crowded day, and it’s pretty clear that bodysurfers get treated like 2nd-rate citizens in the line-up. I got dropped in on, a lot. It was my wave, I was making the drop, and just ahead of me a surfer who thought I wasn’t going to make it looks me right in the face as he drops in to snake it. So it goes. I still got a ton of waves–mostly medium-sized waves that guys paddle for and just barely miss. And towards the end of the session, as people would notice that my rides were legitimate and weren’t just quick close-outs, I ended up getting a bit more respect. But I know I’ll get snaked again.
-The poundings can be downright dirty. As a thrill-junky, I don’t mind getting rattled, I think that’s half the fun, but holy crap can you get hammered. It’s all about the take-off, and the problem is two-fold. If you make the drop and take it too vertically, and don’t angle it enough to stay with the wave, you end up getting ahead of the lip. One of two things will happen. The first is that the lip will land directly on you, usually somewhere in your lower back, and the wave will violently try to rip you in half. The second thing that can happen is that you actually get fully in front of the lip, and it breaks immediately behind you. When this happens, you often times get fully launched out of the air….like, end up flopping your arms and legs around while you are airborne, as the wave throws you at its mercy. On one particularly memorable wipe-out I literally got water pushed under my eyelids while getting dragged under water. How’s that for the power of the ocean.
-I think a testament to the last statement is the fact that you get a ton more sand in your ass when you bodysurf. You just do.

As it says on Danny Hess’ website in his hand plane section, “I’ve occasionally had a bad time surfing, but I’ve never had a bad time body surfing.”

If you are considering giving it a go, I say do it. It’s incredibly fun. Fins aren’t too expensive, all the brands are pretty good. I’ve always used Churchills, for the almost two decades I’ve been bodysurfing, mostly because when I was a kid I saw Pointbreak and I thought the scene where the guy goes skydiving with Churchills was awesome. There are little mini-leashes that you can attach to your fins so that if they slip off your feet, they are still dangling around your ankle, which I think are a good idea. I’ve definitely had my fins ripped off my feet during some poundings.

Hope to see many of you out in the water, especially if you give bodysurfing a shot.

Posted by: Mark | January 6, 2010

Everything I Need To Know I Learned From My Dog

Ok, that’s obviously not true. I didn’t learn how to type from my dog, and in the 21st century I think it’s pretty important to know how to type. My dog didn’t teach me how to drive or decorate my Christmas tree. I just used the title because I liked how it sounded.

However, I have actually learned an incredible amount about gratitude from my bulldog Augustus.

The other day I was thinking to myself: what part of the day is my dog’s favorite? I certainly have my favorites. If we’re having pancakes for breakfast, then that’s my favorite. If I’m treating myself to a post-dinner milkshake, well then that’s the favorite. If I had an epic surf session, then that’s the favorite. The point is–there is typically a clear, single event that is the day’s highlight, with at most two or three events vying for that title. The rest of the day is acceptable, tolerable, but not necessarily highlight reel after highlight reel.

For Augustus, after long and thoughtful consideration, I think every moment of the day is his favorite part. The dude loves everything, and every moment. He loves when I wake him up, take him groggily outside, to return inside to breakfast. He loves going right back to sleep right after the exhausting, favorite activity of eating breakfast. At mid-morning it’s time for another favorite activity of walking/digging rocks/wrestling with other dogs on Ocean Beach. He loves this so much that he never wants to leave. However, when I do coax him away from the beach, he crashes almost immediately into his favorite nap of the day, when we are usually out of the house. He loves it when we come home, and he lazily rolls over from his nap in the sun to get his belly scratched. That’s followed by another favorite walk on the beach, dinner, post-dinner humping of his favorite pillow, then crashing on the couch while typically resting his head on my wife’s butt.

My bulldog seems to love every minute of the day, regardless of what he is doing. Us humans, we love acute moments in the day, but otherwise just trudge through the rest of it. There are some days, “good days,” or “great days,” where it seems that the acute moments of joy are more chronic, but the day is still laden with complaints.

Now granted, my dog’s appreciation for life may just be the living embodiment of ignorance as bliss. He isn’t aware of bills, jobs, global poverty, or Lost: Season 1, so there isn’t much to make him worry. His existence is simple and glorious.

Last summer my wife and I went on a 6 week road-trip with our bulldog, and I was amazed by his flexibility. He didn’t care where we were, he didn’t care if it was raining in Wyoming or if we were sweating in the Utah desert. As long as he had food and water, a place to sleep, and his family, he was happy. The rest of it didn’t really matter.

Living with this bulldog is like living with a cliche–“don’t sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff.”

And yet, cliches are cliched and pithy, but they’re also wonderful. What an existence he must live! I don’t yearn for his ignorance, but I yearn for his gratitude. My dog loves his life, and he needs very few things to be so in love with living. Us “higher order species” are so burdened by arbitrary “needs” that so many of us have lost that joie de vivre.

So for today, I’m making a point of trying to have as many favorite moments as I can. And it’s entirely inspired by my bulldog Augustus.

Posted by: Mark | January 1, 2010

Surf This Art

I have created a new website to indulge my newly found surf photography interest. I want to retain this website as a place for my written thoughts. Even though I may only go out and take pictures every week or so, I have a back-log of images that will keep me updating this new site quite regularly.

So, check it out, enjoy it, and share it with your friends.

Surf This Art

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