More life lessons (and possibly death ones too) from surfing

surfpanic-1When I’m in more depressed states, I often feel that things would be easier if I were dead. I haven’t really thought about killing myself for many years, but the idea of escape sounds comforting from time to time. However, while surfing during my break last month, I actually came much closer to dying than normal, and I had a very different reaction.

The ocean can kill. I’m always well aware of that, and never take the waves or water for granted. Up here in Northern California, several abalone divers were killed earlier this month due to rough and changing conditions. I tend to stay out of the water when the waves look too big, but on this last trip I got caught by surprise. I was down in Southern California for spring break and went down to the beach on my first full day there. I haven’t been surfing much at home because of weather and water conditions(Oh San Francisco! You fickle surf temptress) and our hectic schedule, so I’m also not in the greatest shape either. I went to a section of Newport Beach with various rock jetties, since the waves tend to be bigger than at the pier which is where you normally find the longboarders, and I don’t have a longboard down south to use.

I paddled out without any issues, but then kind of drifted around for the next hour without any success. I found that either the waves were closing out, or that someone else was closer to the peak and would get the wave. I had started at one end of the beach and eventually found myself on the other end, with a jetty in front of me and to my left if I faced towards the shore. Suddenly a set of what seemed like HUGE waves started coming in. I was sitting in too close to shore for these waves, so I was not able to paddle out past impact zone. The first wave tore the board out of my hands as I tried to dive under it, and for good measure it pushed me around underwater for a bit. At this point I wasn’t too worried. However, the waves kept coming. I would come up, get some air and then try to dive for the bottom to get out of the roiling water, but the waves must have been breaking hard because it didn’t seem to help, and I kept getting pushed and turned around underwater. This was scary, but I had experienced something similar in San Francisco, so I knew I could wait it out since the set wouldn’t last forever. What really scared me was that the Jetty was getting uncomfortably closer with each wave.

As the last wave approached I mentally readied myself to be bashed against the rocks and tried to roll up into a ball with my head protected. I took a big breath and the wave hit. I was pushed fast and hard underwater and I kept expecting the impact. It never came. By some stroke of fortune I had been pushed across the front of the jetty and ended up on the other side, so it was on my right when I surfaced. My surfboard had come along as well. The water was much calmer when I came up and I was able to swim in to shore. I was extremely tired and winded so I sat on the beach for about 10 minutes recovering, then walked back to the car and went home. I told the story to everyone at the house, but despite everything, it really didn’t impact me in the way I would have imagined. The next day I went to the pier to surf the smaller waves.

I was telling this story to my coach and she asked me to think about what I did that allowed me to not drown in that situation. My first answer was “luck”. All bets were off if I had hit the jetty at full speed. But I was urged to look a bit deeper. It’s always hard for me to say positive things about myself, but I can say the one thing I did correctly was the first piece of advice imparted by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I did not panic. The second piece of advice imparted by that book is to know where your towel is and have it with you, so I guess I somewhat followed that bit as well. If I had panicked I would have used up my energy and probably not have been able to hold my breath underwater. I feel like I should come up with more things, but that is really the key, to not panic. I was scared and uncomfortable, but I was still able to plan my moves. Everything I’ve been taught during SCUBA diving and everything I’ve read about surfing stresses the importance of not panicking. Even Jaimal Yogis, in Saltwater Buddha(which I’ve written about before), recounts a similar experience while surfing at Rockaway beach in NY(but he got trapped under the rocks of the jetty). It was keeping calm that let him find a way back up to the surface. If you can’t think clearly, you can’t function well, and bad things tend to happen.

It’s an important lesson, which I’m trying to figure out how to apply in the rest of my life. I’m just coming out of a persistent low-ish level depression. During this time, so many interactions with my children and with my wife, as well as thoughts about how little movement I’ve made on my career issues have triggered waves of despair or overwhelm to crash over me. That’s when the thoughts of how things would be so much better if I were dead start. I need to work on ways of not panicking so much when these emotional waves come up. Despite the thoughts, I really don’t want to die yet. I think there are too many good waves left in life for that, maybe it’s just a matter of going one beach over, or waiting for the next day.

Spring, trees and surfing

coral_tree

For some reason, this year was the first time I noticed the pink magnolias (Magnolia × soulangeana) in the bay area. I was dumbfounded, how could I have not noticed such amazing trees before? It seemed almost everywhere I looked I was running into them. For spring break we did our usual trip down to my in-law’s house in Southern California. The photo above is of a Coral Tree in their neighborhood that I always love to see in bloom at this time of the year. I’ve noticed this tree every time I go down there in spring. At times, Southern California tempts me not only with her beaches, but with the varieties of trees(and fruits) that can grow down there(I would love to have a fruiting Cherimoya tree someday).

It was an interesting week for me. Besides the flowering trees, I noticed a lot of stress in myself around the unsettled nature of my future employment and possibly a resultant depression. As has become custom for trips down here, I was waking up early to go surfing in the mornings. I managed to go every morning except for one. I finally realized I was depressed since surfing wasn’t bringing me the energy that normally keeps me content and in a good mood for the rest of the day. I noticed that I was more restless than usual and my wife and I had several stressful days when the topic of my difficulties in finding a job came up.

Despite not getting the usual boost, all that surfing gave me a lot of time to ponder life and the “bigger picture”. Besides being out in the water and the thrill of catching a wave, what I really appreciate about surfing is that it gives me the opportunity to slow down and think a bit. I’m realizing that for the past few months at home I really haven’t a chance to slow down at all. At work I’ve actually been pretty busy(not usually the case), but I have been stressing about the upcoming end of my current position, while also trying to sort out my research data for an upcoming presentation. At home things are always hectic and I haven’t had many chances to just be still. All in all, surfing that week gave me the chance to really slow down and take stock of things. I was greeted almost every day with dolphins and each day I found a new way to see the experience of surfing as giving me a message on life. Interpreting it has not always easy though.

On the first day out I was reminded that waves look a lot bigger or “scarier” when you are lying on your stomach. I’ve been out of the water for a few months due to weather conditions and scheduling, so I was happy to have small waves the first couple of days. I noticed(or was reminded) that when I was paddling out or just resting in a prone position on the surfboard that the waves looked a lot bigger than they really were. This meant that I might paddle for a wave that had no chance of breaking, or that I would get a moment of panic when an incoming wave seemed too big. I would sit up to turn the board around and realize that the wave was actually quite small and nothing to worry about or expend energy on.

Another day I went out it was quite foggy. I could only see a bit of shore and a small distance out towards sea. My focus was on a small circle around me that I could make out. At one point the fog lifted a bit and I could see the pier and other surfers up and down the beach. I had known where I was more or less all along but it was startling to be socked in by fog for so long then suddenly get a much larger view of where I was in relation to everything else. I felt more connected to the beach and world at large.

Another morning I went out again a bit earlier than usual and found the waves were bigger than the previous days and looked like it would be a bit of a challenge. I got out past the breakers and did well initially. Then for the rest of my session I kind of just drifted. I went after some waves with no success. I drifted closer to the pier where the waves seemed to be breaking with a better shape but it was more crowded and I never seemed to be in the right position to go for the wave. In the end, after my first couple of waves I spent the next hour or so not doing much other than floating and paddling for waves while in the wrong spot; I went home frustrated.

The insights from my surfing experiences are various. First of all, I found the experience of seeing waves as bigger than they really were speaks of my tendency to see problems or hurdles to overcome as much bigger than they really are upon first “seeing” them. Usually, any sort of obstacle immediately seems impossible and I tend to give up in despair. Perhaps I’m going through life in a passive and prone position and from that vantage point everything seems daunting. Maybe it would help to sit up and get a better view of what is really around me and what I am capable of. Similarly with the fog, I tend to focus on what is immediately around me and have a hard time getting the wider view of what is going on. I’ve found that in science, unless I have a good sense of the “big picture” I feel like my drive and purpose get hazy.

The experience that impacted me the most was the feeling that after a decent start, I kind of slack off. A lot of surfing is about going with the flow, but at the same time, especially at beach breaks where the waves don’t always break in the same spot, one must put effort into observing where waves tend to be breaking. Then, if you are going to move over to the “good spots”, one must be confident enough to jostle for position with the other surfers that will inevitably be there. I think I tend to seek out the less consistent waves because they are usually less crowded. Sometimes that is fine and I don’t mind the lower wave count and quality, I can be happy with the opportunity to be out in the water. That day however I was frustrated that I didn’t hunt down more waves. Perhaps it was because I was colder than usual(My old wetsuit isn’t in the greatest shape)or because I hadn’t been surfing for several months before the trip, but I wanted the short window I had to be more fulfilling. The realization I had was that I would have to work harder at not only making an effort and moving if I needed to, but also to be more observant and critical.

In life, I think this early success followed by passivity has come up again and again. More recently this has manifested itself in my current work position. When I came on about 10 years ago I had a highly productive period building models for research. After that I kind of coasted on that and let things come to me rather than actively search out new projects and opportunities to learn. As I trying to determine my next career move I see that tendency trying to take over all the time. I have a possible offer for employment, and while I appreciate it another part of me knows that I would be better off all around if I had several options to choose from. Even if this position works out and I choose it, I think I would feel better about it I knew that I had worked at setting up various options to choose between.

After that frustrating surf day I made a conscious effort to constantly reassess where I was and where the waves were breaking. I moved if I needed to and tried not to let the presence of other surfers deter me from the good peaks. It helped a lot. I felt more confident and had a better time. I even caught myself almost giving up an opportunity to surf on my last full day there(I was upset since my daughter had woken up with a fever after coming down with a cold the previous day). I realized what I was passing up and took my wife up on her offer, and had a really good time. I’ve tried to carry that experience into other aspects of my life as well this past week. I hope to keep at it.

A week out from vacation, and back at home, I am left with many things to think about. First of all, even if surfing wasn’t giving me the usual lift and energy, it still gave me time to still my mind, and from that I was able to slow down and make connections between surfing and my life. It reminds me that surfing has immense meaning to me, and I should devote more energy to making it happen more often at home. I should also sit up and better see the “waves” and beautiful flowers that life is placing all around me.

Surfing, again

This blog post has gone through several iterations. Basically, it has alternated back and forth between being about me questioning whether becoming a parent was a good idea, to “I really love being a dad”. I think it’s ended up being a bit of both, but much more on the positive side.

I had been in a “not so sure becoming a dad was an unqualified positive decision” a few weeks ago and we met up some friends who are about to start on their second kid. I think they were a little worried about how much harder it would be with two kids and asked me about my coming into fatherhood and if having kids had been a positive or negative experience for me. I was pretty blunt and said that on average I thought it came out JUST slightly positive, they were a bit taken aback; the husband actually said(kindly) “No, you don’t mean that!”. My main reasoning was that giving up so many things I loved and that made me feel good hadn’t necessarily been the right choice. I think the expectation is for parents to wholeheartedly believe that raising children is a difficult but nonetheless an overwhelmingly positive experience or decision. I understand the motivation behind that expectation, but I don’t always feel it. I love my kids and at this stage can’t imagine life without them anymore, but it’s been a hard journey with no signs of letting up. I felt bad in retrospect and was wondering what was wrong with me. I knew that I had good moments from time to time with the kids, but it just seemed like too much stress.

I then noticed an interesting trend with my kids. Basically, I would have an experience of feeling really good about being a dad, I mean a “YES! I can be a good dad and having kids is great!” experience and then almost always the next day one or both of the kids would act in some way as to stress me out and make me question what the hell I was thinking.

This has happened several times, but as an example, last week I ran across some old pictures on the computer from when my eldest was about a year old. I was moved by how little she looked in those pictures and how much she has grown up since those pictures were taken. I started thinking about all of her wonderful qualities and how she was growing up. I came home and was enjoying her and the rest of the family. Then at bedtime she went into a total meltdown/tantrum with screaming, kicking, some vomiting, hitting, etc.

Was something in the universe picking up on the fact that I was feeling open and loving and then deciding to knock that feeling out of my head, or test me in some way? Or perhaps, it was a message that the rest of my life was out of balance?

Last Friday , I had a really good morning with the kids and was feeling appreciative. We had a smooth morning and got out of the house with time to spare. The morning drop off at school for my older daughter was leisurely. What impacted me was being reminded of what a kind heart she has. She had made “Halloween Cards” for a friend and her teacher, just because she felt like it. She gave them to the recipients before school, and it was touching to see how much they appreciated it and how good she got to feel. Afterwards I was able to walk with my younger daughter to her preschool holding her hand. As I walked back home to get my car, I was struck by the warm air and smell in the air and on a hunch I took my surfboard with me for a post-work surf session. It turned out to be one of those classic fall days we get up in Northern California with warm temperatures and an offshore breeze. It was absolute heaven. I was so happy to be in the water and even got some decent waves. The photo up top is from that surf session. I came home and was in a good mood and enjoying the family. On cue, that evening my daughter started freaking out when bedtime rolled around. This time however even though it went much longer than usual, it wasn’t so overwhelming. I was able to have some empathy for her, and just let it roll off my back. I even was able to laugh (on the inside mind you) observing her theatrics. It was a totally different experience from the previous tantrum.

I always seem to forget this, but it is so much easier to take the hits in life when I am taking care of myself in other areas, and surfing really does seem to give my soul, or whatever you want to call it, nourishment. Surfing for me usually contains brief moments of intense focus and effort; when I’m actually going for a wave. Then during the longer periods when I’m waiting for another wave, I get to reflect on that last period of intensity but also on life in general. The ongoing struggle for me is figuring out a way to get the self nourishment I need on a frequent enough basis. The struggle seems worth it though, if it helps me enjoy my role as a father more.

Being out in the ocean seems to put things in some sort of perspective that I can’t quite articulate, but it makes my life seem pretty good, even if I do get knocked around by waves from time to time.

Out in the open

NY001

So last week I finally announced the blog someplace. No, I’m not talking about the NSA knowing my blog exists! In this case it was a stereo/audio forum I frequent (Hello to any AK’ers!). I wasn’t really thinking about what kind of response I would get, I just wanted to do the terrifying act of announcing the blog. I got some compliments and constructive criticism which was great. The criticism that made me think the most was the observation that I spend too much time thinking about how I feel. I wasn’t initially sure what to do with that observation. Was it a criticism of my approach to the blog or more about how I deal with my depression/melancholy? For a bit I was afraid I’d be too self conscious to write any more posts.

I thought about this for a few days and realized that the authors of the blogs dealing with personal development that I follow ( Penelope Trunk and James Altucher ) seem to have a lot of advice to share. I don’t always agree with their conclusions but still appreciate where their experiences(and ability to learn from them) had led them to. I on the other hand am still going through some sort of process (what that is exactly, I’m not sure), and don’t feel qualified to recommend anything. All I feel comfortable doing is sharing my process. As my wife would be the first to say, unfortunately most of the process takes place in my head. I tend to ruminate or worry or just free associate without really getting anywhere with my thoughts. I find that the act of writing down what I am feeling helps me somewhat in sorting through all those thoughts and emotions and gives me a hint of what triggered what. With the idea that this blog could help someone in a similar position as me, I can only hope that someone seeing my thoughts and process could gain some insight into their own situation.

Given all that, I still think I need to get more of the original idea for the blog back into action. Before announcing the blog I went back and re-read it from the beginning. In the very first post, I stated that I wanted to keep track of the positive things in my life and to see if that would help with my depression. So I think going forward I will put more emphasis on the positive events, but still allow myself to explore any feelings, positive or negative, that come up. Luckily for me, I had a great father’s day weekend, so I do have some positive events to focus on.

On Saturday, I attended an informal upholstery class that I am taking and was able to finish fixing up a foam cushion. My wife inherited some mid-century daybeds, along with some other fantastic furniture, from her grandparents. The daybeds used old-school latex foam for the seat cushions which sadly were beginning to get crusty and brittle near the edges. At the class, the teacher walked me through the process of trimming off the bad edges, sacrificing the smaller cushion to get the big one back up to size via gluing. It doesn’t sound like much, but I enjoyed learning something new and having something to show at the end of the morning. Since you can’t get latex foam easily I’ll have to use the modern stuff to replace the small cushion, but I’m not too worried. The eventual goal is to make new covers to replace the cracking vinyl ones but we have not been able to agree on a material with my wife. I’m looking forward to learning how to sew the covers once we get that settled.

That evening my mom watched the kids and my wife and I got to go out for dinner. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but when we get time alone it’s a reminder of how well we generally are together. The kids take so much energy and patience that at the end of the day it feels like we have little left to give each other. Despite the fact that we had some mostly disappointing Spanish food, we still had a good time and were able to appreciate each other and feel connected again.

Father’s day itself started with a morning surf session for my mom and me. Despite being in her early 60s she loves to go boogie boarding. When we go surfing together she usually stays close to shore for the smaller waves and white water and I paddle further out on a surfboard to the normal break. The conditions were a bit junky but we both managed to have a great time. Even though we were not in the same area of the beach, it still felt good to be doing one of my favorite activities with someone important to me and to share my joy of surfing. Later that day my dad and sister joined us for a BBQ at our place. Being with my parents and sister feels very comforting to me since I know I can be myself and I get a chance to relax and feel taken care of a bit. My wife and kids made me very sweet cards, and my wife even got me a vintage leather bag( a “manbag”) in celebration of my blog and the work she sees me doing on myself.

So despite my anxiety and disappointment in regards to the ever NSA revelations that had been with me all week(hence the picture up top), I was able to feel connected and positive because I was able to do some outdoor activities, learn something new and complete a project as well as getting to spend time with people I love and feel extremely comfortable with. The positivity carried over into the week and I even got some more work done on the stereo. I may finish her yet!

Spring Break!

pier

Our vacation is coming to a close. We’ve been at my in-laws for over a week now. We officially came down for Spring Break and for the annual family Passover celebration, but of course it is a lot more than that. For me, besides getting to see the family and relax with the kids, the trips down here are a chance for me to surf.

I’ve surfed most mornings, the exceptions being one day where my wife was at a conference, and some others where the waves were too small and my wife was a bit tired. We figured out last year that getting that morning surf makes it so it doesn’t matter so much what I do for the rest of the day. In the past, I would often feel frustrated that I hadn’t done anything during the day, or I would feel restless and stuck at the house and often feel a bit depressed. With surfing I feel that I accomplished something important and everything else is icing on the cake. I can enjoy playing with the kids and just lounging around the house. In addition to having “accomplished” something, I also enjoy the time to sit and just be. I tend to appreciate my kids a lot more. I reflect on my concerns and often find myself more open to different possibilities and ideas.

On my first day out during this trip conditions were a bit too big for me and I wasn’t able to catch a single wave and was initially a bit frustrated. But then I reminded myself that I hadn’t surfed for about 2 months. I ended up being okay with the fact that I made it out past the waves despite the hard paddle. Since then the conditions have been much more in line with my abilities and I’ve had a lot more fun.

The surfing highlight of the week was perhaps my second morning when the dolphins were in a particularly playful mood. One of the many great aspects of surfing here is that that dolphins are almost always present, and they come in close to shore. On that day, there was a pod of dolphins doing acrobatics, chasing fish, catching waves(It’s well documented) and just being a joy to watch. I find the animals so amazing, and I have the definite sense that they are very aware of the surfers out there, and while the don’t play with you, the seem to acknowledge you somehow. Especially when they surf waves, it seems to me a playful jab at humans for being so ungraceful in the water. I’m sure I’m personifying the dolphins, but they truly are a wonder to observe playing so close by.

Other than surfing. We had several family dinners, the kids got to spend time with their grandparents and cousins. I got to see come colleagues from grad school and got my fix of fish tacos (you can’t get decent ones where I live). I also watched a couple of movies that I’ve been meaning to catch up on, played with the kids in the hot tub, and I even had a meeting with a prospective employer! I don’t think it is something that I want to pursue, but I was practicing being open to opportunities and connections. I also sent in a cover letter and resume to a company near my home that is doing some rapid-prototyping and design work. Haven’t heard anything back, but I’m proud of following through a chance encounter(in this case with a job listing).

The one downside of going surfing early in the morning is that I tend to be a bit tired in the afternoons. However, the peace, clarity and joy I get from surfing (and the dolphins) more than make up for it. I just need to figure out how I could get more surfing in at home. So thanks to my in-laws for opening their home to use and giving us all such a wonderful week and me the chance to surf!