I stood with the surfboard in my hands. The waves petered out at my feet before they returned to the ocean. My wetsuit rode up my crotch. My companions had already made their way out onto the waves and were hopping up onto their boards like they’d been doing it for years. Because most of them had been. Now, I was supposed to be one of them. I was supposed to paddle out, hop on the board, and master the killer swell before me.
Except, I had never surfed before.
I found myself in this predicament about a week after I moved to LA in the summer of 2010. I had joined my roommate at the time as we accepted the offer from a friend of his to get a surfing lesson. The friend was a middle-aged man with a wife and four kids–and all six of them surfed, biked, dove, swam, and participated in nearly every other activity requiring a supreme sense of proprioception. This was a family of doers, and right now the father, the two sons, and my roommate were doing a good job of navigating the waves of the Pacific Ocean off of South Bay’s Redondo Beach.
I wasn’t, though. I was standing on the shore tugging the wetsuit away from my crotch. My roommate’s friend’s “surfing lesson” consisted of his lending me a board and the offending wetsuit, taking us down to the beach, and then saying, “There’s the ocean. Go for it.”
Go for it.
As the waves continued to work past my ankles, I wondered if this father of four had ever seen the movie Point Break. In it, Keanu Reeves is a young FBI agent who has been assigned to a bank robbery case in LA during surf season. He is charged with the task of infiltrating the surf community around where these four guys dressed as ex-presidents Reagan, Carter, Nixon, and Johnson go around robbing banks. He obtains a surfboard and then…goes for it. Within moments, he totally wipes out, almost drowns, and is rescued by Lori Petty who is almost as pissed about his “pig board piece of shit” surfboard as she is about the fact that he’s trying to get up on the waves without any knowhow. The film takes us through a training montage in which she has him practicing how to pop up, stand, and other techniques. Later on, with Lori Petty and his new friend Patrick Swayze, he actually surfs.
The problem was, Lori Petty was nowhere to be found. I once saw her in a yoga class, but that was in Santa Monica and also about three years earlier. It didn’t seem likely that she was about to blur the line between fiction and reality and either teach me anything or lambast me for my pig board piece of shit, so I shrugged and began paddling out.
The thing about Hollywood movies is that they’re often not based in reality. This is not because I wasn’t about to be rescued by Lori Petty, but that there’s little chance that Keanu even had the energy to try to surf by the time he got out onto the damn waves. It turned out that paddling out against the current was really freaking hard, and by the time I was only halfway out to where everyone else was doing their thing, I was done. I made one or two half-hearted attempts to try to get on the board, barely made it to my knees, and then let the waves take me back in. I was so confused by the absurdity of what happened that I wasn’t paying attention to my board as I disembarked and righted myself at the edge of the water.
The stupid board collided into the stupid side of my stupid leg and almost blew my stupid knee out. Almost. I decided in that moment that surfing pretty much sucked, and unless the real-life equivalent of Lori Petty came by to teach me a few things, I wasn’t going to try doing it again.
In the two years that followed, I sought out other adventures. I went to rock climbing camp, visited an ostrich farm, and even got on the waves again when a friend introduced me to stand-up paddle boarding–an activity that was much more my speed. But by the end of 2012, my life had consisted of little more than typing things on my laptop for work. And though writing and editing books is a true adventure of the mind, it made for shitty stories. “What did you do today, Neil?” “I typed.” “Oh yeah? How’s that caps lock key doing?” “It’s awesome. You touch it and your whole word is in capital letters just like that.” “And that’s awesome?” “Oh, it’s AWESOME.” “Oh, indeed. AWESOME.”
Clearly, it was time for me to go on an adventure of the body. I needed something that had as much potential for adventure as surfing, but without a wetsuit that rode up my crotch. And hopefully, I could get a Lori Petty-like coach. Life might not be like Point Break, but at least I could honor the film’s message that it’s best to enter physically compromising situations with help.
And then, I realized something. Surfing wasn’t the only physically compromising situation the characters of Point Break found themselves in. Maybe I could do more than merely honor the film’s message.
* * * *
“Three minutes!” said Roach, sitting next to me in the airplane. There were the four of them and me.
“This is a ceremony we always do at the end of the summer,” said Bodhi with a confident grin. “One last speed star.”
I returned his gaze but didn’t smile back.
“Oh, by the way,” he continued, “you might wanna pull that little orange thing sometime.”
I looked down at my parachute. There was a little orange handle on the side of the pack.
“The life you save may be your own,” said Nathaniel. They all traded glances with the pull cord handle and my face.
“So,” I said, “who packed my chute?”
“I did,” Bodhi said, his grin fading a little. “Why? You don’t trust me?”
I stared right back at him.
“You gotta earn trust,” I finally said.
“OK, we’ll earn it together,” he said. “Here, take mine.”
Bodhi swapped chutes with me.
“Hey, that’s not a good idea,” said Roach. “Bodhi’s packs are pretty shitty. They only open about half the time.”
“Less!” interjected Nathaniel.
“Bullshit,” said Bodhi.
“Why don’t you take young Grommet’s, here?” said Roach. “How’d that be?”
Grommet looked from Roach to me.
“Nah, you don’t want this one, man. This one’s set for a neck-breaker.” Grommet grabbed the pack that Bodhi was holding. “You’d probably be better off with something like this.”
These guys certainly had motivation to see me catapult myself to the ground unassisted by a parachute. I took the pack from Grommet.
“Are we gonna jump or jerk off?” I finally said.
As they headed toward the doorway of the plane, I considered the absurdity of this situation. In fact, the only thing that was more absurd than jumping out of an airplane with four bank-robbing surfers who were shooting at me the previous day was pretending to jump out of an airplane with four bank-robbing surfers in a personal essay I was writing about a Saturday afternoon I spent at a skydiving school.
Of course, I never took off in an airplane with bank-robbing surfers. That scene happened an hour and fifteen minutes into Point Break, and the scene of them diving through the air planted the very first picture I ever had of skydiving back when I first saw the movie in 1991. But, on one Saturday in October of 2012, I did go to skydiving school. I signed up for a tandem jump to take place sometime after noon and hoped that it would jolt me out of my qwerty-induced stupor.
* * * *
“If you get injured or killed in the act of skydiving,” the man in the video said, “your family will have no legal right to damages to be dispersed by this school or any associated third parties.”
The receptionist at the school office’s counter had set me up with a clipboard and a waiver form that required me to sign or initial it about two dozen times. As I went through the form and signed my rights away, a video was playing in the corner of the room on what seemed like a continuous loop. It had to be almost as old as Point Break but without an ounce of Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial talent. In the video, a lawyer lectured the viewer on how serious, dangerous, and significant the act of jumping out of a plane really was.
“By signing the release form you were given,” he continued, “you are signing away your right to funds as it relates to any skydiving-related accident. If anything happens to you during your jump, that would be considered a skydiving-related accident. Even if you walk through the parking lot of this school and slip on a banana, because it happened on this premises it would be considered a skydiving-related accident as well.”
He droned on from there. The receptionist then came in to video me holding up the signed form as well as have me say a prepared statement just to be ensure that there was no legal ambiguity in my choice to waive my rights. She told me that they would announce my name over the speakers when my instructor was ready for me. As I left the room, I noticed that the lawyer was finishing up his speech and that the video had come to an end of its loop.
“Now enjoy the open skies,” he said, “and I hope you have a safe and wonderful time with your first skydive.”
I hoped so, too. Jesus.
END OF PART 1.