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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Sun Also Rises


Dear America,

Greetings from Lake Sircoe, Canada.  I wish you could see this place.  I just came down from the top of a lighthouse where I watched a pink and orange sunset over the water.  A couple white gulls lazed around in the air and there was a red sailboat rocking way off in the horizon.  It was the most perfect event I’ve ever witnessed, and it was the ideal way to end the day that I’d spent at the end of a wooden dock reading Hemingway and drinking gin and sodas.  I finished half of The Sun Also Rises today, and even more of a bottle of gin.  Then I sauntered down the island and up the stairs to the lighthouse tower.  Truly stunning.

I thought about you today.  We had a great time together last month didn’t we?   I kept wishing you could be here today.  I’m probably just being nostalgic for a you that never really existed though.  You were always too busy to just sit and watch the sun set.  Does idling an entire day away listening to water lap at a dock sound good to you?  How about sluggishly thumbing through a Hemingway book called The Sun Also Rises with a sweating glass of gin and soda?  I have a feeling it all sounds too boring.  Too lackluster.

You always liked things faster paced.  If anything it always felt like I was sprinting just to keep up with your walk.  Of course we argued this issue into the ground and I’m not telling you anything you don’t know; it’s just that I had almost forgotten that about you until we spent last month together and then it hit me like a brick, oh yeah, I remember this – you are always in a hurry.

You were always on to the next thing before you finished the first.   You wrapped the next bite of spaghetti around your fork before you had even swallowed the one you were on.  You marked up tomorrow’s square in the daily planner while the sun was still up and leaving you plenty of good today to work with.   You hadn’t figured out how to use the apps on your iPhone 4 and already talked tirelessly about the iPhone 5.  You were always on to the next thing.  You were looking for the next breakthrough band, the next film, the next everything.  You were never happy with what you had.  You needed novelty and newness and next, next, next.

There I go again.  We’ve gone round and round about this and we never come to a solution.  I don’t know why I feel compelled to bring it up.  It is just that we spent 27 years together and some of your qualities rubbed off on me.  They say couples tend to start looking and acting like each other, and sure enough.  Even now I often find myself scarfing down a meal when I have plenty of time to actually sit and taste it.  I’ll find myself carrying on about the next place I’m going to visit or the next device or album I plan to purchase when really I should be thinking about where I am and what I have right now.  You rubbed off on me during those years.

I’m not saying this to make you feel bad, though.  That is just who you are.  And this is what I’ve learned about relationships: The quality you hate most about someone is usually tightly knotted to the quality you love most.  If you do away with the thing that grates on you the most, you’ll also be killing the thing you love the most.

The thing about spending a week isolated on this cottage on an island, the thing I hate most about it, is that one cannot simply get supplies when they are needed.  We took a ferry ride out to the island, and we loaded down the ferry with what we hoped would be enough supplies for the week, but it wasn’t.   Leah ran out of her cigarettes already, and she’s been pretty cranky about it.  She can’t just run to the store and get more, so we just have to deal with the irritability.

I wonder if maybe someone shouldn’t build some kind of bridge out to the island so that vacationers wouldn’t have to wait on a ferry to the mainland every time they ran out of toilet paper or needed to get ice or smokes, but if a bridge were built the quiet solitude on the island would be sacrificed.  And that’s what I love most about the island.  The worst quality about the island is webbed together with the quality I love most.  If supplies were readily available, the serenity I am experiencing would not be. That lighthouse would have been filled with tourists, and the peaceful sunset I witnessed would have been a guided tour.

And the same thing goes for you, America.  That quality that I hate most about you is inextricably linked to your best quality.  You are always in a hurry.  You are always moving on to the next big thing.  You forget to enjoy the moment.  You always think about what could be instead of what is.  And that drives me crazy.  Maybe it’s what drove me away.  But it also is what makes you great.  I’ll tell you a story.

One time I was with a friend of mine, a Jordanian, on the way to see a movie.  He asked me why you seemed so unhappy, why you can’t seem to just enjoy life.  Why, he asked, does America not relax?  Why does America not take her vacation days?  Life, said my Jordanian friend, is to be enjoyed, not to be rushed though like America does.

I almost agreed with him, but then I had a thought.  Well, I told him, look at this thing you are driving.  If it were not for America's dissatisfaction with conventional travel and her relentless work ethic, the automobile never would have been invented, the assembly lines never assembled.  Then I looked around and saw that all of my friend’s CDs in his car were from American musicians.  How about this music, I asked him, if it were not for America’s relentless pursuit of creativity, you would not have any of this.  Hell, I told him, if it weren’t for America’s work ethic and dedication to craft, the movie theater we are heading towards would have nothing to offer.  And how about that iPhone, I told him as I pointed to the one sitting in his console.  Sure, Steve Jobs and Wozniak were workaholics who never took the time to relax much, but that’s why you can check the movie times on your phone and then pull up a map telling you how to get there.  I thought I was over you, America, and then suddenly I found myself offended that anyone would criticize you.  I found myself coming to your defense.

Have you ever tried to hold a picture right up to your nose and look at it?  It gets all blurry when it is too close to your eyes.  In order to see it clearly, you have to put some distance between you and the picture.  The same is true for relationships.  Sometimes you have to put some distance between you and the other person to see them more clearly. I used to criticize you for your inability to relax.  Your insistence on the next everything made me insane.  But that was when we were too close.  Now that you and I have some distance between us, I can see that the thing I hated most – the thing that drove me away - is also the thing that I love most about you. The fact that you can't relax, can't enjoy what you have, the fact that you need the next and better thing is what makes you awful.  It's also what makes you great.

I’m not saying this because I want us to get back together.  I am not ready for that and it’s not realistic, so don't worry that I'm going to come running back. The sun set on you and me.  Our day dipped down over the horizon over a year ago, and it’s gone.  I think we’re both at peace with that, and who doesn’t feel at peace after a good sunset, especially if you can watch it from the top of an old lighthouse.  Right now I’m really enjoying living at my own pace, as I’m sure you are.  I’ll take all the slowness I can get.  But I wonder if someday, maybe way down the road, we might try to make it work again.  Hemingway may have had a point; the sun has set on us for now, but the sun also rises.

Sincerely,

Adam Showalter

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Railey


The railey, or superman as onlookers have dubbed the wakeboard trick, is a stunt that requires an unusual heap of bravery and lunacy.  The speed and airtime necessary to deliver a railey are such that a wakeboarder must hurl his body skywards at speeds of near fifty miles per hour while he flattens out over the water, all the while extending his arms and legs and holding the rope handle out in front of him.  When the trick is done well, the rider looks like Superman flying proudly through the air and looking down from his midair perch, thus the railey’s supplemental moniker.  It is one of the sport’s most exhilarating tricks to watch, and it inevitably brings those watching to the edges of their vinyl seats where they are rendered breathless for a few captivating seconds while the rider glides magically over the water, weightless and careening through the sky with his board and head on an even plain ten feet above the water.    

But the railey is not without its hazards. While this high-flying feat is without a doubt an enchanting one to watch, it is, for the rider, a trick that requires that he put himself in a most vulnerable position.  If the wakeboarder fails to get his board back under him before he makes contact with the water below, he will do a fifty-mile per hour belly flop with a board attached to his feet.  The feeling is something like being jackknifed from a high dive by a WWF wrestler.  And that is not even the worst-case scenario; if the rider gets the board only partially back under him, the lip of the board can snag on the water and hurl the rider downward in positions even more compromising than a belly flop, and at far greater speeds. 

I spent entire summers trying to learn the railey and during the process bruised my ribcage twice, turned both ankles, knocked my wind out countess times, and very probably sterilized myself.  Once, after a hopelessly botched railey, I hit the water with such tremendous force that when I reemerged to the surface my yellow “Live Strong” bracelet had inexplicably been pushed all the way up my arm between my bicep and armpit.  The bracelet was jammed so tightly up there I could not get it back down.  I wriggled in discomfort watching my arm turn blue from lack of circulation as the boat looped back to pick me up, and to this day I do not understand how it happened.  My friends had to cut the band from my arm with scissors.  Seeing it in such an impossible position was like seeing a tiny black ponytail holder around a woman’s neck and wondering how she managed to slip it over her whole head.  It seemed physically impossible, and it was testament to the reckless speed I had acquired when I struck the water.

Eventually, after a couple summers of routine near-death experiences, I landed my first railey. It was the proudest moment of my life.  The wakeboard came down between my legs and the water just before we collided and instead of being blasted into the water, which has about as much give as cement at fifty miles per hour, I found myself gliding above the water atop my board and riding comfortably out in the flats.  I had stuck the trick that seemed impossible just two short years before.  Unfortunately, one good superman did not mean I had the trick whipped and I was only able to land it on about half my attempts. 

Recently I have become a more reliable executor of the superman.  The last few times I rode my wakeboard in Abu Dhabi I landed massive raileys to enthusiastic cheers from my friends aboard the boat.  Because of the long warm season in the UAE and my ability to board year round, the trick that had eluded me for so long back in America was finally becoming routine. 

Then I came back to the States for a visit, and since my return I’ve been unable to land my superman and stranger yet, unmotivated to really sell out and try.  Maybe it is because the boat I ride behind here in the states is not putting out the same huge wake as the boat I got accustomed to back in the UAE, but I am not convinced that the boat is the culprit.  I think the main reason I have been unable to stick a railey on my liquid hometurf is because I am scared to put my body in such a vulnerable position right now.  I cannot get myself to commit to the trick.

See, a wakeboarder cannot halfass a railey; either he sells out and puts his body in harm’s way (and by doing so puts himself in a position to land the trick) or he goes in timidly and really gets hurt.  To land the trick a rider must commit to putting his body in a compromising position.  To go in hesitantly is to increase the chances of damaging your ribs or getting a yellow bracelet shackled to the summit of your arm.  You need to be moving too fast.  You need to be catapulted into the sky.  To quote a good friend whose wakeboarding motto inspired my blog’s title, You gotta want it. If you don’t want it bad enough, it’s not going to happen.   And right now with only 30 days to spend with my friends and family in America, I simply do not want it bad enough that I am willing to risk a weeklong stint in Cox Hospital.

My inability to execute a railey is not the only bizarre detail I have noticed during my holiday in America, though.  I was closing in on 30 years old when I set out for new horizons, and upon my return I found that most of my friends have slipped into legitimate adulthood during my absence.  I returned home after a year abroad, still happily single and unattached, only to find that most of my friends had become fianc├ęs, husbands, fathers, or some combination of the three.   The same guys, who when I left were finishing their tattoo sleeves and seeing how quickly they could suck a beer out of an oil funnel, have been converted into responsible family men.  

Now it’s not just my mom and aunts who carefully spin every conversation marriage-and-childrenward.  My old friends do the same thing.  Upon my return, I found that the topics of kitchen appliances or painting-the-baby room can be treated with the same passion that used to be reserved for road trips or the hot girl that just moved in to a neighboring apartment.  A conversation that, in its initial stages, pivots around a new favorite craft beer or an up-and-coming band will quickly spiral into one about diaper prices or how the wife wants to build a bigger deck in the back yard.  Scores of my buddies have stopped using the pronoun  “I” altogether; everything is “we really want to do some traveling after graduate school is finished” or “we really wanted to buy a Big Green Egg, but the mortgage payment is so expensive we settled for a new gas grill.”

Most of my friends have slipped into marriage and fatherhood like a kitten into a sock.  They are happier and more comfortable then they could have ever imagined.  Their lives are purring along wonderfully.  I’ve watched them scoop their toddlers off the floor and zoom them above their heads.  They show me baby pictures and kiss their smiling wives on the forehead. They talk about their babies like somehow the little pips have already found cures for cancer or medaled in the Olympics.  They sell me on marriage and fatherhood so hard that I can only assume they are on commission.  Dude, it’s so great to have a life-long teammate and a little human being to love.  You just can’t understand it until you’ve done it.  So what do I have to do to get you into one of these babies today?

But sometimes in the very same breath they’ll tell me about how cumbersome marriage and parenthood can be.  They’ll heave deep sighs about the never-ending responsibilities, the financial issues, the monotony.  They lament the masculine fires that used to burn in their bellies that have been doused in baby piss and put out by daily trips to the store for more Gerber.  They bewail long weekends with her incorrigible mother. 

And then there are the risks, they tell me.  There’s always the chance you could end up hating her after a year or two.  Or she could end up hating you. She might cheat on you, stop cooking, or put on sixty pounds and refuse to change out of your extra large Pink Floyd tee.   Maybe her family will end up being a total wreck and then it will be your responsibility to comfort her through years of therapy and tears.  And that is just the spousal part of the equation. 

What if the perfect little kid you’ve envisioned comes out mentally handicapped, blind, or deformed? What if you lose your child to a car accident and suddenly the most important thing in your life is taken from you and to top it all off your wife catches a Prozac addiction to deal with the pain of losing a child?  The possibilities for tragedy and misfortune, for a family man, are endless.  And it is up to him to stick it out to the end. 

I reckon what these friends chose is essentially the life-path version of the railey.  When you get married and start a family, you put yourself in the most vulnerable position possible for a man.  You give up control of your life.  You put yourself in a compromising situation and, chances are, you are going to get hurt. 

But to achieve the most rewarding experiences in life, you have to put yourself in harm’s way.  As I’ve learned on my wakeboard, there is no way to halfass it and still get those sensations; a man has to approach his familial commitments with reckless devotion.  He has to make himself vulnerable and in doing so, open himself up to all manner of hurt and suffering – or then again he might touch down safely on the other side having felt the greatest sense of accomplishment available. There’s no chance of pulling it off without sustaining an injury or two, but if he manages to land feet-down he’s in for some exhilaration. 

The friends I left behind one year ago are now bracing themselves for both the greatest pains and the greatest rewards life has to offer.  They are vulnerable, moving way too fast, and they are nowhere near safety, but they are gripping that rope handle between their fingers and hoping they will be able to pull off one of the greatest stunts a man can try - the meaningful family life. 

I’m willing to put my body through hell in order to feel myself carve through the air above the water, arms and legs fully extended while I look down from my midair perch.   I spent entire summers dealing with debilitating injuries in order to stick the elusive railey.  I compromised my body and made myself vulnerable every time the boat pulled me out of the water. But that was just my body.

I have serious doubts that I will ever be able to put anything besides my body on the line to get that feeling.  Fearing for my own life is one thing, but taking responsibility for other lives - that is real risk.  It takes a braver man than me to pull it off.  It takes a stoic acceptance of vulnerability.  And to all my friends who have taken on the responsibility of being a husband and bringing children into this world, to all my friends who have made themselves vulnerable and opened themselves up to life’s greatest pains in order to pull off one of life’s greatest stunts - I don't know how you do it.  I think you are supermen.