When it comes to your partner or companion, it’s important to be able to read each other. Lia and I have a few different check-ins that we say to each other that hold different meanings in our partnership. One of them is “Is this surfing?”
This is the story of the birth of that expression, and a lesson of caution about trying new things.
At least, that’s how I introduce this story. Lia likes to call it “that time I almost got stung to death by a million jellyfish.” But more on that later.
Morro Bay, California
It has been mentioned it before, but I grew up in Morro Bay, CA. It’s a sleepy little tourist town on California’s Central Coast with great sea life, scenic views, delicious food, and an interesting collection of locals. It’s only 4 hours away from San Francisco and makes an amazing weekend trip from the Bay Area, so we visit frequently.
Pretty much everyone from that town takes part in the absurdly Californian hobby of surfing. Lia had never gone surfing before and would tease me about how my life growing up was “The OC,” (which, to someone that grew up on a farm in Kentucky, probably wasn’t an off base assumption) so one trip back home, with our friend T along for the ride, we decided it was time she tried it.
My wife, as outgoing as she is, is absolutely an introvert. We’d spent the past week camping with friends, getting drinks with high school buddies, and constantly running around. She needed a break from people and was feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. If you’ve ever spent time with an introvert who needs some time alone, you probably know that they tend to be cranky and anxious.
But of course, I didn’t notice, and she didn’t speak up, either. So we’re kinda both at fault, I guess. Again, it depends on who’s telling the story …
Anyway, we had plans to go surfing.
That Time We Went Surfing
We pulled up to the rental shop (Wavelength’s. Check them out if you’re in town) and Lia was already regretting her decision to keep quiet about her brewing anxiety.
As we headed to the dressing rooms to try on our wetsuits, she was mentally reliving the last time she attempted to stuff her tall, voluptuous Amazonian body into the size Medium wetsuit the kayak rental store employee handed her. It was made for girls no taller than 5’5″ and 125 lbs. It did not go well. Have you ever tried to squeeze a sausage into a casing? Picture that.
Thankfully, the guy working this counter was a pro and got all three of us fitted perfectly in a minute.
We precariously strapped our surfboards to our car and drove the mile to the beach.
Let’s talk about these boards. They were 8 foot, super heavy foam boards. At first you think “Oh these aren’t so bad to carry,” but then you walk a hundred yards in hot sand with gale force winds whipping at your face and you begin to question what on earth you were thinking.
Our friend T is a little north of 5′ tall, so she was struggling just figuring out how to hold the damn thing. And with every belabored step, Lia’s level of “this is the stupidest shit imaginable” increased.
By the time we found a good spot on the beach, she was already resigned to never walk with a board that big again.
I gave Lia and our friend T a quick lesson on paddling out, grabbing the wave, popping up, and taking a fall. Then, we set off for the water.
For those of you who’ve never surfed, when you paddle out – which is essentially swimming using only your arms while lying on the board – waves are crashing on you repeatedly. The way you combat this is to “turtle” (where you hold your board down INTO the wave and let it crash over you), or to hit the wave straight on and sort of float over it.
Neither of those options made sense to Lia, because they both result in you getting slapped in the face with a wave and ending up with sea water in your eyes and mouth.
Instead, with each wave, her strategy was to shriek, duck, and turn away from the wave. She may have gotten slightly less salt water in her mouth, but she also ended up sliding back to the shore every 3 seconds.
As you can imagine, this plan did not work. As a result, 45 minutes went by before she was far enough out to catch a wave. It was like swimming with only your arms on a giant, salty treadmill for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, T was getting better and better. She whizzed past us on all 4’s, shrieking with glee with each attempt to stand up on her board and subsequent splash into the water.
Lia, meanwhile, was NOT enjoying herself. “What is the point of this?” She griped. “I thought surfing was supposed to be relaxing. This is NOT relaxing. This is exhausting. How do people do this stoned?!”
She had a point. How DO people do this stoned?!
I’m actually not particularly good at surfing, myself. I’m not even remotely athletic and both Lia and I are deeply clumsy (our poor children are doomed). I went surfing in Lima, Peru during our year-long honeymoon and fell face first onto a giant pile of rocks. As I lay cleaning my bleeding wounds, a local walked by and informed me that I was doing everything wrong, and suggested that I take a few surfing lessons.
So objectively speaking I probably shouldn’t have been teaching anyone, much less my equally-clumsy, accident-prone wife, how to surf.
…And then we saw the jellyfish
Once she got far enough out to catch a wave, Lia was exhausted. Her arms were tired. She was still anxious and overstressed from too much social interaction and not enough alone time. And when she gets frustrated and overwhelmed like this…. well, she’s not a joy to be around.
As I tried to give her tips on catching waves and she attempted over and over again without success, her frustration mounted.
It was like trying to make a sandcastle out of dry, cranky sand. Not only was surfing not coming naturally to her – it is, admittedly, not the easiest sport in the world – but she was falling apart by the minute from the stress of failure mounting on top of everything else
That’s when she saw a single jellyfish floating in the wave in front of her.
The jellyfish waved a single, rubbery tentacle at her. It winked one beady little jellyfish eye in her general direction. It was the tiniest, cutest little jellyfish ever.
Lia was convinced that this jellyfish was going to kill her.
“JELLYFISH!!!!” She screamed at the top of her lungs. “GET OUT OF THE WATER!!!!!”
All of the other surfers in the water nearby immediately perked up. Is there a shark!??! Nope. The locals shook their heads and swam calmly away from the teeny baby jellyfish.
I tried to calm her down. “Honey, it’s just one little jellyfish,” I reassured her.
But I was wrong. There was a very small armada of jellyfish on the wave, gently bobbing in Lia’s general direction, waving their noodley tentacles menacingly.
Lia was having none of it. She thrashed and flailed as fast and as hard as she could towards the shore.
Lia is actually a damn good swimmer. But she had an anchor attached to her ankle: a giant, heavy, bulky foam surfboard.
It was like watching a loony toon gag where a character tries to run but the rug keeps slipping up underneath them.
I helpfully unstrapped her from her board and she took off like a shot, screaming profanities about surfing, me, and jellyfish all the way.
Left in the water with the mini jellyfish armada, I realized that they were barrel jellyfish – a completely harmless jelly. I helpfully informed her of this fact when I returned to shore.
Uncomforted, Lia pointed out that knowing what types of jellyfish are dangerous by sight is some California-ass bullshit. Apparently teaching jellyfish safety isn’t part of the school curriculum in Kentucky. Go figure.
Why Lia Freaked out Over Surfing
After a half hour of “I could have DIED, Jeremy!” she calmed herself down, and we talked.
She explained to me that her high level of frustration with the whole surfing excursion had little to do with surfing, but were being magnified by external factors. She never got a chance to decompress from all of the socialization we’d been doing, so she was feeling overwhelmed and anxious. We were both feeling that constant travel rush to spend all of our time doing fun activities on our trip and had carved out no time to relax and unwind. And she felt a little bit like a Kentucky farm girl when I was with my California buddies, which made her feel even more unsure about trying out something as alien to her as surfing.
Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to her freak-out was that as a fat person she was feeling like maybe she wouldn’t be able to surf. A quick aside: neither I nor Lia use the term “fat” pejoratively, nor do we feel that it is a negative descriptor; rather it is a neutral statement of fact. We’re both comfortable with fatness. I’m not insulting Lia’s body here. Aside over.
Sports, especially sports that are primarily enjoyed by beautiful, tanned model types like surfing, aren’t terribly inclusive of fat people, and she didn’t have a feeling of “I can totally do this!” going into our adventure. She felt frustrated that despite being a decent hiker and a strong swimmer, she was feeling limited by her body.
Add the fact that wetsuits basically magnify every part of your body, and even the most confident, badass fat chicks – which Lia is – can get self-conscious. Side note, can I just point out that she looks AMAZING in her wetsuit in that photo above? Am I allowed to brag on how gorgeous my wife is on our blog?! Is that weird??
But even though she was feeling anxious, overwhelmed, out of her element, and a little bit insecure about her body’s physical abilities, she didn’t want to let her fears keep her from trying something new, even something as challenging as surfing. So she tried it.
And she found out that she didn’t particularly enjoy it very much.
And she decided that was OK.
We went back out into the water, except now it was just T and I surfing while Lia swam. The jellyfish were all gone at this point. Lia had a great time swimming and finally being able to actually use her legs in the water. She also became really good at helping me decide which waves to surf – I swim without my glasses, and like I said, I’m actually not a very good surfer, so this was SUPER helpful.
What We Learned
I started this story with a promise to explain the origin of our “is this surfing?” check-in.
Whenever one of us is upset while we’re doing something and it doesn’t totally make sense why we’re upset, we ask “Is this surfing?”
What it means is: Is this problem actually the topic we’re discussing, or is a different need of yours being ignored or not fulfilled? There’s a big difference there, and I think it’s one that often gets blurred.
Lia wasn’t really upset over surfing. I mean, she didn’t like it very much. But she was mostly upset over a bunch of OTHER stuff, and it all spilled over into her surfing experience. Add all of that brewing anxiety to a very small army of jellyfish, and you have the perfect recipe for a freakout.
Lia and I are both the type to try new things. A lot of travel types are, I think. The idea is to always say yes to a new adventure or a new experience.
But that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy the activity.
Not every first try is going to be a mind altering, earth shattering, oh-my-god-you-have-to-go-to-Burning-Man event. And that’s okay. Sometimes you just want to try it to say you tried it. Lia may never surf again (or rappel down a waterfall again, or go into a volcanic mud bath again…) and that’s fine.
More importantly, we grew stronger in our partnership and in our ability to identify one another’s needs.
Having this check-in has really helped us as we’ve been faced with more and more of that feeling of stress & being overwhelmed that comes from travelling full-time (the worst is when you’re stressed, overwhelmed, HUNGRY, and – the cherry on top – lost. Ooooh boy). We’ve learned not to take it personally when one of us is cranky or miserable. It just happens, and that’s OK.
Also, we both learned a little bit about jellyfish, which will probably come in handy one day.
On a semi-related note, after the surfing incident Lia decided she was fed up with feeling limited by her lack of athleticism and took up powerlifting. Now she’s fat and also super strong. Take that, salty arm treadmill.
Have you ever tried something new and totally hated it? Tell us your story in the comments!