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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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There were five lessons I learned during my surf lesson that extend way beyond the water.
There were five lessons I learned during my surf lesson that extend way beyond the water.

Surf's up

I've been avoiding writing this blog since it means I am reflecting on my visit to warm, sunny Maui, which in turn means I am back home in the cold and back to the daily grind. The sour part of me wanted to muse on reasons not to take vacation since re-entry into real life is so difficult, but then I couldn't fathom the reality of a year without escape from everyday life into some tropical wonderland.

Instead, I have chosen to tap my fingers away for a much better reason – to share my adventure getting on surfboard for the first time at age 36 and the lessons I learned from the Papa heʻe nalu. (That's surfboard in Hawaiian.)
My husband and I went Maui bound for the second year in a row and this time, had only one thing on our leisure radar – surfing. Chuck set up a lesson at Maui Wave Riders where they specialize in "beginners and cowards."

I qualified for both. The ocean is an intimidating force when you were mostly raised on pavement. It's only been in recent years that I have even been exposed to open water and braved the waves. But, we were resigned to learn to surf on this trip. We were amped to yell our "Cowabungas!" and "Shaka Brahs!" (We learned real surfers actually say these phrases! Well, maybe not "cowabunga." And I learned there is a difference in the direction your hand faces as you flash "hang loose" with your fingers.)

We arrived in Maui late on Friday night and rose a few hours later stoked to catch a wave. We were the first students to arrive at surf school and as our co-pupils trickled in, we were impressed with the diversity of the bunch. But, we were completely fascinated with the instructors, each a living, breathing example of Maui surf life. They were amazingly friendly, relaxed and very tan.

Our instructor was yet to show up, but we were intrigued with stories about the sole female teacher, aptly named, "Sol" who would be our guide on the water.

Some sort of station wagon/truck/van (basically a vehicle exactly like you picture with surf boards on top) then screeched through the congregating students who were getting geared up with water shoes and rash guards. The driver was a cocoa-y brown, foxy lady with a mop of bleach, blond curls springing from her skull.

Sol was now my favorite person in the universe.

The other teachers razzed her driving skills and her tardiness, but she was all business. Wearing a booty short version of a wetsuit, I marveled at her tiny, athletic physique while she pulled her enviable mane through the back of a trucker hat.

She looked at our group of five would-be surfers and commanded us to follow her for our land lesson.

Sol insisted on pulling each board we would practice on out of the truck herself, hoisting the soft top longboards on top of her head and then placing them on the grass. The boards looked sincerely miserable to be plopped on land, instead of in their rightful place, buoyant on the ocean.

We spent about 30 minutes learning the five steps to stand up on the board or in essence, to surf:

  1. Paddle
  2. Pop up/Kneel
  3. Lunge
  4. Squat
  5. Arms/Ride

And then, without any fuss or ado ... we picked up our boards and headed to a less stable surface. There was no extra prep or drama over graduating to the water. We just walked in, paddled out and lined up to give it a go one at a time under Sol's detailed instruction.

My turn finally came up after what seemed like three days of waiting for the three kids in our group to go first. I watched each perfectly perform the five steps and ride.

And then, so did I.

The exhilaration of catching my very first wave sent happy energy throughout my entire being and elicited waves of another kind - of laughter - from my very core. The wave died down, I jumped off my board (well, maybe I fell off – but, I did learn to jump off after a few sets!) and I paddled right back out for more and more. In fact, so much more that I acquired a nasty surf rash on my legs.

I now understand the function of wet suits when using a soft top board. A little advice – wear board shorts or a wet suit that covers your legs when learning – it will save you a lot of pain and irritation. And ladies – if you insist on bikini bottoms – make sure they are surfing guaranteed – in other words, they stay on you on and off the board.

And one more thing ... surfing is an athletic sport. You may want to train a bit, incorporating functional training, (Thank you BJ Gaddour, SteamFit.com and Men's Health Speed Shred for what was unknowingly perfect prep!) flexibility training/yoga and cardio (swimming if you can!) to be really prepared.

Reminiscing on the experience, I realized I learned much more than just "how-to" surf and what clothing to wear. There were five lessons I learned during my surf lesson that extend way beyond the water.

First, BE FEARLESS (and if you have fear walk all over it.) I was kind of taken aback when Sol marched us all out into the water without any, "Be careful of this" or "This might happen ..." Instead of acknowledging any fears we may have had, any trepidation or hesitation, she simply stomped on it by trudging forward. You cannot let fear hold you back from anything. Letting fear rule you is a good way to stay stuck right where you are. Whether fear is preventing you from confronting the water or dealing with whatever is holding you back in your life. BE FEARLESS and your world will expand.

Next, BE POLITE. We quickly learned there is etiquette in everything, especially in taking turns catching a wave. I am still a little cloudy on the exact procedure, but sometimes you have to let someone else have the moment. Sit back, be patient, soon you will have yours too and it just may be a bigger, better wave. Etiquette gives some order to what could be a crazy free for all. It's just like mom and grandma always told you, manners are important. So, BE POLITE, wait your turn – it applies at the grocery store and at the bank too.

Further, BE GENEROUS. We were so impressed by the kindness of strangers on the water. When we took to the waves on our own, our fellow wave riders gave us tips mid-ride, paddling out and while we faced the horizon, waiting for the waves to come in. This was unsolicited advice given from the heart. The other surfers wanted to see us succeed. It was an outpouring of tips, secrets to success and free instruction with no motivation other than the joy our mentors got as they hooted and hollered when we caught the wave and rode it into shore. BE GENEROUS – it feels good for both parties.

Also, ACCEPT YOUR SITUATION. This was when Sol got all "Mr. Miyagi" on us. She looked at me before I headed out on my second wave and said, "You will feel the wave push you, that is when you need to accept the wave. Take your time, take it in, accept it and then stand up." Wow, accept the wave. No need to feel rushed, just accept your situation and then take your time to act on it.

This is very contradictory to my, "DO SOMETHING right now!" mentality. It reminded me to slow down, to really think before I act. This certainly extends onto shore and into real life. ACCEPT YOUR SITUATION – then you may be OK with it and be able to get in the "barrel" of your existence.

Finally, STAY GROUNDED – BE BALANCED. Now, here's the real key to staying on your surfboard and perhaps to happiness in general. In surfing, the lower your center of gravity, the more balanced you can be on the board and hence, the longer you can ride the wave. In life, isn't it the same thing? Staying balanced and grounded is essential to a healthy, happy existence. Balancing work and pleasure, indulging and restricting, staying grounded in the present moment – it sounds like yoga class banter, but it really does apply.

Too much or too little of anything leads to imbalance, which leads to disharmony which leads to you feeling out of whack, which just feels crappy, or tips you right of your board. STAY GROUNDED, BE BALANCED... and you can ride that wave of life anywhere.

Surfing has invaded our life in and out of the sea, it's our new addiction and I hope if you have the opportunity, you'll give it a try too. And even if you can't get in the water, try to surf your way through life.

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