Monday, June 27, 2005

Well, blow me down.

The weekend started out with amazing potential for surfing and spending time with my wife. Thankfully, the quality time I got with my spouse over our three days at the beach almost made me forget about how utterly crappy the surf was. Almost.

We stayed at our neighbors' gorgeous beach house perched on a hill overlooking the beach at Oceanside. Some friends of ours, another couple, met us there. When we arrived, I immediately assessed the surf, which was pretty disappointing. So the four of us grabbed lunch at the overpriced Rosanna's (the town's only restaurant) and I downed a couple beers, enjoying the company.

After lunch, as we walked back up the hill to the house, I noticed the waves improving a little with the rising tide. As I suited up and trotted back down the hill with my board under my arm, I ran into a family who was just arriving at another vacation home for the weekend. I asked to borrow sunblock, and commented that even if the surf was below average, at least the sun was shining. The father said they had prayed for sun all week. I replied that they had done a nice job with that, wishing they had also made an appeal for swell. "God bless you!" The Christian man called after me as I continued toward the beach.

Long story short, I made the paddle outside with dry hair and joined another surfer (sporting the prerequisite moustache and Russo longboard). We caught a couple mush-burgers and fought the intense longshore rip that pulled south at what seemed like 15 knots-per-hour. "Beats sitting in front of the TV," said the longboarder. "Or working out on a treadmill," I huffed as I battled the whipping wind and relentless current. After an hour, I bellied one back to shore - a half-mile from where I entered the water - and ran back up the hill to my friends and a nicely chilled bottle of rose.

Later that night, after getting tipsy, we hiked on the beach and explored rock formations and tidepools the unusually low tide gave us access to.

Sunday was a bust. I bid everyone farewell at 11:00 in the morning and drove 25 miles south to Pacific City, a popular spot where I was sure to find surf and some much needed wax. It started raining around Cape Lookout. I stopped and considered trekking two miles down to the legendary "Camp," but decided against it, since I had no way of knowing how flat it might be. And the rain was pissing down harder.

I noticed a few surfers out at Tierra Del Mar, but the waves were as bad as Oceanside had been, so I continued to drive south. Pacific City was a joke. The waves were windblown mush and I counted 2 longboarders, 3 inflatable kayaks, 2 dory boats, and 3 wave runners in the lineup. The waverunners were catching bitchin' airs off of the whitewater. At least I got some wax at the surf shack south of town.

So I made the decision to drive back up the coast toward my ace-in-the-hole Short Sands, figuring if it was breaking anywhere it would be there. An hour later I arrived in the crowded parking lot. It was 3:30 on Sunday and the weekend warriors were packing it in. On my way down the trail, I passed some guys from Portland's Gorge Performance surf shop. Their review of the conditions were as follows: "Small and crowded." Truer words were never spoken. I surfed for a couple hours, catching some two-foot closeouts. I noticed that I would blow takeoffs more often and pearl all the time on these sloppy waves. Going right was a complete disaster. I couldn't find the pocket. The conditions deteriorated and I trudged back up the path to the parking lot. I took a picture from a viewpoint on Cape Nea Kah Nie, speculating that during the right swell direction it could be an amazing right point break.

I pretty much gave up on the prospect of getting any surf for the rest of our mini-vacation and focused on hanging with my wife, who had been as patient as a monk as I searched coastal Oregon's nooks and crannies looking for any semblance of a wave. We watched movies as the rain came down outside. We slept in and read our books, drinking pressed coffee and eating junk food. It was complete relaxation. At 4pm on Monday we started getting ready to go home. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the waves improving as the tide rose. She said it first: "That was a big one, wasn't it?" Three surfers made their way out into the water. "Do you want to go out there with them?" Five minutes later, I was jogging back down the hill again. I told my wife to hang my board bag over the rail of the deck in an hour, so I could tell how long I had been out.

The waves were finally picking up, five-foot walls of whitewater tumbling in at short intervals. Oceanside is one of the few "rights" that I have encountered in Oregon. Factoring in that and the strong rip, I paddled in on the north side of the beach. When I reached the outside, I talked to one of the other surfers. We agreed that you'd have to catch these waves late in order to ride them. They practically had to break on your back since they were big, but not steep. My first ride was a short right that sent me down the beach and into the rip. I failed to tap into a powerful enough wave to propel me inside to the bowl section. I had a difficult paddle to get back to the takeoff zone again. I watched the other surfer drop in and admired his smooth carves and the speed he generated. He did a hard off-the-top turn as the wave closed out and paddled back toward me.

"I could really use a 'left' right now, to get me back up there," I said, motioning to the takeoff spot a hundred yards away. As I said it, a big watery wedge approached and sure enough the peak feathered to the left. "There you go!" He yelled. I paddled into it and began dropping down the face. As I pushed up I was very unstable. The face was choppy - this was the first legit wave I had seen in a while. I was about to crash and burn, but I hung in there with my right hand still on the deck of the board. I stood up completely as I reached the bottom of the wave and leaned into the bottom turn. I was hauling ass. The whitewater sprayed me as I raced along the shoulder. The wave itself was taller than me and bumpy as an old dirt road. I rode it until I stopped moving and the board sunk under me. Although I must have looked like a clown, at least the thrill was there.

Moral of the story: Bad conditions can make you feel like a complete kook again. Just when you think you're starting to progress, the fickle Ocean comes along and bitch slaps you with a reality check.

...Oh yeah, and in the end it really isn't all that important anyway. My incredibly tolerant wife taught me that.

Music: Coldplay - "What If"

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Emotion in the Ocean

Wednesday, June 22 - Surprise evening sesh at Short Sands!

The experience of surfing in Oregon is one of tranquility and harmony with nature. Whereas our surfing brethren in Southern California pride themselves on how "aggro" they can get in and out of the water, "ripping lips" and "boosting sick airs," the Pacific Northwest surfer is more of a soulful creature. Even walking to the beach lends itself to the meditational, spiritual aspect of our sport.


That's why it always boggles my mind when I run into teenage surfers up here who seem to think that they need to profile like they are surfing in the Op Pro with only seconds left in a heat. This is how I felt for the first hour of when we got to Shorty's Wednesday night. I entered the ocean in a peaceful state, making my way out to a peak where nobody was that might offer a chance for my first trip into a small barrel. It was 6:00 and there was only a handful of people in the water, but before I knew it two kids were flanking me on either side, one giving me a stink eye that contrasted with his rosy red cheeks. Suddenly, only about 3 yards away, he took off on the next set wave that came through. He was a decent surfer, but not much better than me. As I waited for the next wave, he paddled back out quickly (low tide made it easy), parking himself directly to my left, closer to the peak where I was waiting. A few minutes later, another set came through and he paddled into the first wave. I caught the second, which closed out. This pattern continued, with him placing himself inside of me after every wave until I almost said something, but decided against it, riding the next left that he wasn't on and moving to the peak at the middle of the beach (pictured below). I caught a few decent rides there and even got kudos from an older surfer who was just paddling out. We exchanged set waves for a while, cautious not to drop in on each other. After about 15 minutes, who shows up? Mr. Cheeky again, but this time he's with 4 other kids, all of whom seemed to have missed the part of their surf lesson about etiquette. It's a big ocean, boys, with plenty of waves to go around! I didn't even wait around this time, but paddled even farther north, back to the peak where I surfed on Saturday. This turned out to be the best decision I could make.


My first wave was shoulder high and much more powerful than the ones I had been jockeying for all evening. Two paddles and I was in. The face was green glass as I slipped right down into the pocket. This time I consciously tried to get low, bending my knees more and leaning my shoulders toward the wave's face. I dragged my left hand and could actually feel the lip spraying above my head. A second later the steepness of the surface propelled me forward and I shot out to the shoulder, where I leaned back, applied pressure to my back foot, and turned right (spraying a little off the left rail) - back down the wave, which had caught back up with me during the turn and was steep again. Then I repeated the process until I made it to the inside section, which was steeper. I pumped up and down the smaller, bowlier reform until it finally closed out and I did a little turn off the foam. I only realized how far I had ridden afterward, when I started paddling back to my line-up spot where I took off. It must have been 100 yards away. I let out a coyote howl as I ducked under a wave.

Four things of note this session:

1. Stayed low and tight to the wave's face.
2. Kicked out of the wave properly after riding, like a top turn off the back where you don't re-enter the wave. (landed on my board a little hard, though).
3. Continued keeping my eyes open under water during duckdives. Much more tranquil when you can see!
4. I started feeling like a crusty old man when those "groms" invaded my space. Bad.

So the moral of my story is that although I faced some slight challenges in the first two places where I tried to surf, it was only because of those challenges that I found my perfect little wedge. Harmony was achieved again.

Good night and Namaste!

Music: Architecture in Helsinki - "Tiny Paintings"

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Spring Swell at Shorty's

As a beginner, every surf session seems to be filled with firsts and being as wet behind the ears as I still am, the learning curve is huge. I'm sure my friends are sick of hearing me say, "That was my best day yet!" as I tug off my wetsuit on some monolithic beached log, but the fact is: In the heat of the moment I often feel that way. This was especially true on Saturday evening when I finally dragged myself out of the water at Short Sands after four hours of riding the most perfect waves I have seen there.


As usual, we had no idea what to expect when we merged from HWY 26 to the 101 and caught our first glimpse of the water. I had checked the surf forecast site and it mentioned a 6-foot swell with NE winds at 10-15 kts and an 8 second swell interval. Over the last year, I've driven out numerous times under these exact conditions and found seas resembling everything from a washing machine to a Lake Oswego, so I wasn't expecting much. Slim and Gee, my two surf chums, were suffering from the Irish flu and I was getting a contact hangover just smelling their putrid booze breath.

At first, the ocean seemed soupy and disorganized, but as we drove south, the sets got more defined and some of the beach breaks along the way that we'd normally scoff at tempted us with hollow peelers. We vowed to motor back to one of these picnic beaches if Shorty's was too protected by its rocky borders to receive the swell. Twenty minutes later, after parking and hiking a quarter mile through old growth to the beach, we were dumbstruck.

I popped a beer, but sat it down when I saw a guy get tubed on the south end of the beach. Faster than Clark Kent on crystal, I was in my wetsuit and jogging down the beach to my favorite peak near a stream on the north side. Slim was paddling out a little further south. Gee was right next to me when we found the channel and made our way to the outside.


First, the above photo of me isn't from Saturday. It's from last summer at Shorty's on a much smaller day (duh). I'll admit to rushing out to surf so fast this time that I didn't take any pics -- I'm still kicking myself. Anyway, it took me almost an hour to warm up, but when I finally did I accomplished more than on any other day. First, I paddled into the waves at a pretty hard angle to the left and popped up much faster than I normally do in order to avoid air-dropping down the face or taking a lip to the head. Next (and most importantly), I was hyper-aware of where my feet were on the board. I have somehow established a bad habit of riding closer to the middle of the board, rather than having my back foot squarely on the tail. But Saturday was different. I noticed that the closer I could get my left foot to the back, the more control I had over the board. I was even able to throw mini spray of my rails on top turns! Or so said Slim (what a good chum).

But my most memorable wave was a larger one that I caught and actually crouched down in time to see the lip starting to throw over my head. It was by no means a tube - I didn't get officially "shacked" or whatever, but just seeing that feather of water above my head was an incredible rush! After which, I dragged my hand in the smooth face as I turned back up to the top. Then I did a top turn and connected the wave to the inside. I'm positive that this didn't look as good as I'm describing it: I was most likely wobbly and standing too tall as I tend to do, but the great thing is that I actually controlled my board and it sort of did what I wanted it to. Also, my board went really really fast. Sometimes it would go so fast that I would get too far out in front of the pocket and lose speed. I know I'm supposed to do a cutback at that point... yeah right.

Anyways, it was a great day. "THE BEST." And my two drunkard buddies even agreed this time.

Music: Stephen Malkmus - "No More Shoes"

Friday, June 17, 2005

Magic Johnson Vs. Miss Jackson

While I was watching the NBA finals yesterday, they showed a clip of a game that took place in 1987 between the Boston Celtics and the LA Lakers. It was a dramatic finish in which Magic Johnson pulled into the Garden's lime green key and executed a perfect running sky hook, right Converse high in the air, like a long distance lay up. With only 2 seconds left, it was the game-winner.

A Laker fan by birthright, this highlight should have stood out in my mind crisply, especially considering the constant grief my friends gave me for not supporting our state's only pro team, the Portland Trail Blazers. But for some reason, it didn't seem as easy to remember as, say, Kirk Gibson's gimpy homerun trot around the bases, revving his arm like a lumberjack starting an invisible chainsaw.

"Why is that?" I pondered as I rewound back almost twenty years in my mind. Then it came to me: It was on that warm June night that I kissed a girl for the first time.

I heard that Miss Jackson had a crush on me, but during those first days of summer vacation when the air smells of fresh cut grass and gnats glow in the setting sun until 9:30, it didn't register as something terribly important. After all, my friend Matt was having a slumber party and all us dudes were gonna watch a basketball game followed by a George Carlin stand-up video, followed by "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." It was even slightly embarrassing when she showed up before the game by herself (she only lived a block away) and asked to talk to me in the street in front of his house. But my friends said to go for it, so I did.

She stood there wearing short white shorts, thick white socks, clean white Keds, a turquoise t-shirt, and a white smile exaggerated by her half-Native-American complexion and bracketed by deep dimples in her cheeks. I remember that she looked pretty there in the golden light with her brown eyes, brown hair and white teeth. As you might imagine, the conversation died as quickly as it started, leaving us to stand in nervous silence.

"Well?" she asked, lowering her chin to look up at me.

"Um. I better get back to the game." I replied.

"Yeah, you better," she smiled with a hint of mischief.

"Yep." And no sooner had I said it than I was leaning in, leading with my lips. She took my clumsy advance without a flinch. As a matter of fact, her lips were soft and open when mine arrived and her tongue soon crept out and touched my mouth like sea life emerging from coral. Our tongues chased each other gently and I swooned at the sensation of wet on wet, mapping every taste bud and smelling her mother's lotion on her skin. It probably only lasted five seconds. Or was it five minutes? Then she said "bye, call me," and walked back down the hill to her house.

As I climbed the steps to where my awkward friends were already cheering for Larry Bird like crazed Bostonians through their braces, I glanced up at the spastic bats that flapped and dodged in manic circles above, feeling their way through the sky. I was acutely aware that this was the first day on my road to manhood. I never could have known how much like those bats I would become.

Music: Kings of Convenience - "Gold in the Air of Summer"
Pinback - "afk"

P.S. As I was thinking about this entry, I actually glanced over and noticed my yearbook from 1987. I flipped it open and found the place where she signed it:

"Rick - Here goes to a really nice guy! I'm glad that I got to know you better this year! I am still looking forward to inhariting the tremendous amount of money from you when you becoming a famous artist (Ha-Ha!) Well I hope that this year was satisfying to you! You're a really good B-ball player! Keep it up! Be positively sure to give me a couple calls this summer - 482 - ____! Have an infatuating summer! Love ya LOTS! [Miss] Jackson!

I gave her a couple calls that summer and we shared a couple more firsts. It was infatuating. But it didn't last. I also quit playing basketball the next year. Fifteen years later, ran into Miss Jackson at the Shanghai Tunnel bar here in Portland. She was still pretty.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Myth of Sissy Fish

Hello and welcome to Sissy Fish. This is a blog about trying to survive as an artist in the strangest and most beautiful city in America: Portland, Oregon. Having moved town two years ago from Hollywood, California, I recently decided to cut as much bullshit out of my life as possible.With that decision, I vowed to stop snuffing the creative spark inside my heart with career aspirations that kinda sorta sound tolerable because the pay is right. I refuse to keep rolling the rock up the hill only to watch it tumble down again and again. I draw pictures. I paint paintings. I tell stories. And now I surf.


My house in the Northeast part of Portland is approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes away from the nearest surf break, a world class left called "The Point." I have never braved the huge waves, VW-size boulders, or predatory locals there. Having only surfed for a year now (not counting a few years of flopping in the foam during the '80s), I am content to cut my teeth at less intimidating spots: Short Sands in Oswald State Park, The Cove at Seaside, Pacific City, Oceanside, and a few other breaks in between. As you can probably guess, I'm not very good. I can trim down the face of a wave in either direction and generate speed by pumping and doing small top and bottom turns to keep me in the pocket. I always prefer to face waves and I am goofy foot (my right foot is forward), so I like "lefts" or waves that break from left to right if you are watching from the shore. Lucky for me, most of the waves in Oregon are lefts, including "The Point." Someday I hope I'll be able to paddle out there and return to tell you all about it.

Charging out into the 45 degree sea against wild currents and tidal rips may seem crazy to people who have never experienced the thrill of riding a wave. Making it past the breakers to the outside where unbroken swells can be caught has at times taken me over a half hour. You scratch at the water with numb hands and just when you think you are there, walls of turbulent whitewater carry you back to where you were five minutes before. But you blow the saltiness out your nose and keep stroking toward the rolling beasts, taking their power head on. The Sisyphus myth resonates and you feel damned to an eternity of ice-cream headaches until, somehow, you rise over the crest of an elevating peak and can finally straddle your board, catch your breath, and wait for your heartrate to drop. Then, when the time is right, you challenge yourself to pick the largest wave of the bunch, paddle back in the direction you came from, and launch yourself down its powerful and thrilling face.

Then you do it all over again.

So this humble weblog's about following those dreams and everything in between. I will also try to set the mood by posting random pictures and artwork and telling you what music was playing when I wrote. Like this:

Music: The Fiery Furnaces - "Here Comes the Summer"