My First Serious Surfing Injury

As I paddled out past the breakers last Monday afternoon, something didn’t feel quite right.

There are days when Moana is warm and accepting–these are the days when you paddle out and you feel safe and secure, almost like you belong out there. I’ve felt her welcome on many occasions, in particular, one warm afternoon this past December when I caught a wave and looked down to see a single stingray gliding under the water just ahead of the nose of my board. I took that as a positive sign from Moana, so I turned my board, followed the stingray toward the beach and then popped off the board as the stingray veered down the coast.

There are other days when Moana doesn’t want you around and you’re better off keeping your feet on the hot sand. Last Monday felt like that kind of day, but the breaks hadn’t been good for the past two weeks and I was itching to catch a couple of waves so even though it felt like a day that I’d be better off staying dry, I put on my wet suit, strapped my leash to my leg and paddled out nonetheless.

Two strong sets of opposing currents—one from the east, around Hick’s Bay, and another from the the low-pressure systems of the Pacific Islands—met and clashed at West End and by the time I got out past the breakers, I could feel the tidal conflict and decided to just grab one wave and call it a day.

The sand bar must have been shaped like a narrow valley because the waves were breaking twice over the space of ten yards. This is not unusual and good surfers can actually capitalize on the dual-breaking waves, but I am a mediocre surfer and I decided to catch one that was breaking further out and then bail out before it broke again. After I caught the first wave, I started paddling toward the shore and over my shoulder I saw what appeared to be an easy left-hander coming my way so I got ready to ride it but before I popped up, the wave jacked up quickly and it threw me over the nose. That’s not a big deal in and of itself. It’s called pearling out and it’s the embarrassing surf equivalent of falling from a standing position.

By this point, though, I was in knee-deep water so after I slid off the nose I jumped up and looked around for my board. Somehow, I had gotten ahead of it and as I turned around to follow my leash another wave swept up my board and pitched it directly into my mouth.

I felt a slash and then something wet and warm coating my tongue. When I looked down, my board and the front of my wet suit was covered in blood. It felt like my lip was hanging below my chin and that moment, then, became the point in time of my First Serious Surfing Injury.

I grabbed my board and ran off the beach thinking that I’d jump in my car and drive the 8 km to the hospital but by the time I got over the dunes I was feeling woozy so I stopped by my friend Bill’s house and rang the doorbell. He swung the door open, took one look at me and I could tell he made a concerted effort to mask his alarm. “Oh . . . Eric,” Bill said with a kind of unnatural calmness, “let’s get you to the hospital.”

An hour later as I lay on a bed in the emergency room at Whakatane hospital, the ER doc picked something out of my teeth and asked, “What’s this green stuff?” to which I drolly replied, “My board.”

By that evening, I was stitched up and sitting at home gingerly sipping a beer. “Wow,” I thought, “That was lucky! I got myself a nice hero scar, a good story to tell and my lip hardly hurts at all!” I walked over to my neighbor, Scott’s house and showed him the wound. Scott looked genuinely pleased and aa fellow surfer, he clapped me on my back and said, “Congratulations, you are a real surfer now.” Scott’s wife, Fionna, a nurse at the hospital, was just looking at me with a tight smile and it wasn’t until the next day, when the searing pain began that I realized Fionna knew that my high spirits would not last long.

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A post-ER beer at Mata Brewery in Whakatane

Fionna knew something I didn’t, namely, that the Novocain the doctor had given me was still very much in my system and serving as a barrier to the pain. By the next morning, after the Novocain and Ibuprofen had worn off, I woke up to a lip that was swollen to the size of my thumb and a throbbing, constant pain across the lower portion of my face. And to make matters worse, now that my mouth wasn’t numb, I realized that at least one, probably two, of my front teeth were wobbly.

I tried to do a bit of yoga just to prove that I could do it and then got myself together as best as I could and drove into town to see Sujata at the hospital. As I walked through the front door I ran into Agnes, the hospital receptionist who I’ve become friendly with. She saw me the day before as I hobbled into the ER, blood dripping off my chin and onto my shirt and without taking her eyes off me she picked up her phone and then I heard her whisper, “Sujata, you better come down to the ER.” When I saw Agnes the following day, though, she waved me over and asked, “How old are you?” to which I replied, “Well, Agnes, as a matter of fact, I’m 53 today.” Agnes quickly shook her head and said, “You are too old to surf.”

Fair enough, but, truth be told I am by far not the oldest surfer at West End and in fact, some of the most beautiful and graceful surfers on our beach have me by at least a decade.

We went to Wellington this past weekend and while Sujata and the kids bopped around, eating whatever they pleased and enjoying all the wonderful things Wellington has to offer, I walked around in a painful daze, sipping milkshakes and drinking beer from a straw.

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Twelve stitches and a puncture wound

It’s been ten days since the accident, though, and I’m, happily, feeling better. Sujata cut the stitches on the outside of my lip off yesterday but the ones on the inside are still there. I think my tooth is tightening up, which will be good news because if it doesn’t, I’ll need a root canal.

My family’s responses to the accident and its aftermath have been telling. Sujata, who is self-admittedly a better doctor than she is a nurse, has been cool but helpful, offering equal parts eye-rolling and genuine efforts to help me alleviate the pain and preclude infection. The first few days after the injury, I looked like an extra from Dawn of the Dead and my daughter, understandably, announced at the breakfast table, “I’m sorry, but I don’t even want to look at Dad.” Last evening, as my son was preparing for his first day back at school following our Wellington trip, he asked me with genuine concern and wonder, “Dad, if you can’t surf tomorrow, what are you going to do all day?” I told him not to worry about me, I’d figure it out, but given that I can’t even swim at this point and given that hardly a day goes by when I don’t either swim in the pool or surf in the ocean (many days I do both), it does leave a gap in my days.

The final bit, though, is a shout out for socialized medicine. Since I incurred the injury here in New Zealand, the visit to the ER and even the visit I made to the dentist on the following day are 100% covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation. Thanks, New Zealand, for taking care of me, and your own.

Learning to Swim, Again

I come up out of the pool at the Whakatane Aquatics Center sputtering and breathing hard at the end of a 400-meter sprint, the last of three for my workout that day.

Gripping on to the pool deck for support, I look to my left and notice an elderly man with a New Zealand Masters Swim cap mouthing words at me. I’m disoriented from the lack of oxygen and I can’t hear anything because my earplugs are in so I pop them out, take a few deep breaths and ask the man to repeat himself.

“Are you training for something?” he says with a thick Kiwi accent. “Because your stroke is all wrong, if you are.” Yes, I’m training for a swim on the Waikato River, I tell the gentleman. “Come over in this lane,” he growls and I obediently duck under the lane divider and come up out of the water to meet an extended hand, “I’m Eddie Vowles and I teach people to swim.”

Over the course of the next few months I see Eddie in the pool two or three times a week and he works me through a series of techniques and drills that significantly improve strokes and my times.

Before I met Eddie my fastest 400-meter freestyle was about 8:10. Two months after I met Eddie I’m breezing through a 400-meter freestyle in 7:35. That’s a big improvement.

I knew that I was working too hard with my shoulders and that my “catch” wasn’t quite right. In fact, I had spent the better part of the month before I met Eddie trying to correct those problems by reading swimming technique books and watching YouTube videos on swim strokes. When Eddie learns I’ve been watching YouTube swim videos and reading swim instruction books he scowls, “You can’t learn anything from a YouTube video.”

On terra firma, Eddie just looks like an average-sized, ordinary bloke. The first time I ran into him in town I hardly recognized him. In the pool, with his black New Zealand Masters swim cap pulled tightly over his head, his tinted goggles perched above his aquiline nose, Eddie looks like a king surveying his court. He just turned 80 a few weeks ago and it’s both humbling and inspiring to swim next to him. I’d never break any Master’s records in my age group, but I’m a decent swimmer for my age and even though I’m a full 30 years young than Eddie, he overpowers me when we are swimming side by side.

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Eddie posing in front of his vanity license plate

Before he retired in the late 1980s, Eddie was a serious swimmer, but since his retirement, swimming has taken on a primary role in his everyday life. Eddie holds four New Zealand Master’s records, one Australian Pan Pacific Games record, one gold and one silver medal from the 2005 World Masters Games in Montreal and one silver medal from the 2009 World Masters Games in Sydney. These are major accomplishments that don’t just come from natural talent. It takes hard work, dedication and hours in the pool to get to that level, at any age.

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A small selection of Eddie’s swimming medals
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Looking through his vast collection of swimming literature

Beyond his swimming honors, Eddie is a kind of aquatic Leonardo di Vinci. He approaches swimming with a joyful curiosity as well as a science and a mathematical problem to be solved. I’ll frequently get emails and texts from Eddie encouraging me to stick with it and reminding me of certain mathematical principles related to swimming, and whenever I see him he’s quick with a tip or a theory for a more efficient swimming stroke.

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A typically encouraging text message

Eddie brings a colorful assortment of swim accouterments to his lap swims and he piles them up at the end of his lane. On a small white board propped up against the dive pedestal, Eddie writes out his daily workout, target heart rates for each set and masters world record times in the freestyle, back stroke and butterfly to aspire to.

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There’s also a raft of homemade swim accouterments including hand paddles made of plastics and rubber he got at the hardware store here in town and a weird-looking contraption, called a Pool Buoy that consists of a bright-orange bucket tied to a bicycle tube. You have to wrap the tube in a figure eight around your ankles, put the paddles on and go. I nearly drowned the first time I used it.

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One day I am swimming in the lane next to Eddie and I’ve just finished a 200- meter freestyle set. I stop at the end of the lane to catch my breath and Eddie comes chugging up alongside me, pops his head out of the water and says, “You are lifting your hand too high after your release. Keep your elbow at an obtuse angle and keep it higher than your hand. I know I’m picking at you, but I just want you to look beautiful.”

I must admit, I want to look beautiful in the water as well, so I do what he says and I think of a line in Welcome to the Monkey House where Kurt Vonnegut (one of a long line of literary swimmers) writes “I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. . . . In the water I am beautiful. ”

No matter their skill level, though, swimmers do look beautiful in the water and Vonnegut is correct: sometimes the most awkward people on land are the most graceful in the water. This was certainly the case for the English poet, Lord Byron, who  suffered from a club foot, took up swimming and became a legendary and magnificent swimmer.

Many times after I swim, I’ll sit quietly by the pool and watch my fellow swimmers freestyling, back- and breaststroking and butterflying across the pool. I love to watch all those elbows, hands and forearms exploding from the water, slicing back in again and then the bottoms of the swimmer’s feet fluttering and kicking up small waves as their heads rhythmically move from side to side. As I watch from the sidelines, I’m relaxed and at ease and I relish what Byron, called a “languid laziness,” that I feel after a long swim.

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Eddie working on his butterfly

Eddie teaches me to perform my freestyle stroke in three phases: first you spear the fish, then you pull it out and empty the bucket. Before Eddie started mentoring me, my freestyle stroke was way too long. I was reaching too far ahead of myself in the water and as a result I wasn’t getting enough of what swimmers call “the catch.” Eddie tells me to shorten my stroke and to have my hand enter at an angle with my thumb turned toward the pool floor. That’s ‘spearing the fish.’ The arm extends out as far as it can go under the water and then there’s a quick move with the hand where the thumb moves to the top and the pinky on the bottom. As that’s happening, the hand is moving toward the belly as if it’s pushing the water in an “S” shape. The elbow stays high and at an obtuse angle. It looks easy when he does it but when I try initially, I flounder around.

After Eddie shows me the “spear the fish method,” I feel awkward in the water, I have to think about every movement both my arms are accomplishing and even the seemingly simple movement of rolling my wrist so that I can “catch” the water and push it across my torso causes me no end of thinking and frustration. I think for a second that I can’t do it and that I’ll just go back to the old way of doing freestyle. I keep trying, suffer the same level of frustration and threaten to just give up swimming altogether.

I’m a late bloomer, though, and I’ve learned enough things later in my life that I know that as soon as I get to that position, as soon as I’m so low and frustrated and angry with myself for my incompetence and ineptitude that that’s the exact moment that I’m really learning, developing and reaching a new performance level.

I’ve been doing the front stroke crawl basically incorrectly for my whole life so it takes a lot of time and mental energy to reeducate myself. Finally, I get. I start to glide through the water and I cut the number of strokes across the pool from 20 to 17.

I find myself practicing the stroke when I’m sitting on the couch or walking down the street and I am reminded of the story of how swimming helped the great English poet, Samuel Coleridge, secure his first library pass rather than a jail sentence:

Coleridge was infatuated with the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived in an isolated tower on the European side of the Dardanelles and Leander, a commoner, lived on the Asian side. They fell in love and every night Leander would swim four miles across the Dardanelles in order to be with Hero. One night, though a strom comes up and Leander drowns in his attempt to reach his love and from there, Leander’s nightly swim to Hero across the Dardanelles has become a touchstone story for literary swimmers like Coleridge and, later, Lord Byron, who swam Leander’s crossing and subsequently penned the satiric poem, “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos,” about his adventure.

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One of many visual interpretations of Hero and Leander, this one by Jean-Joseph Taillasson, 1789

Anyway, Coleridge is thinking about Leander one day and he begins to imitate Leander’s stroke as he’s walking down the street. As he’s bringing his hands away from his body to push an imaginary handful of water (Coleridge, like all pre-twentieth-century swimmers, did the breast stroke), Coleridge’s hand inadvertently falls into the pocket of a wealth gentleman who’s walking beside him. The gentleman stops and accuses Coleridge of trying to pickpocket him but Coleridge speaks up and tells the guy all about Hero and Leander and that he was just imitating Leander’s stroke. We have no reason to disbelieve Coleridge, but the rich old guy certainly did! Either way, he took pity on Coleridge, a poor boy with a rich imagination, gave him money to buy a library card and thereby set Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the path to becoming a great poet.

Eddie likes to say that he “collects swimmers,” and it’s true. If there’s a fledgling swimmer anywhere near him he is at the ready to help them improve their stroke. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were having a beer at the local Irish pub in Whakatane and we fell into conversation with a father and daughter who were sitting at the table next to us. The father recently retired to Ohope, where we live, and the daughter comes over from Hamilton, a land-locked city on the north island about three hours from us. The daughter mentioned that she swam in a long-distance open water swim the previous week and when I said that’s quite an accomplishment, she told me that just a couple of months ago she could hardly swim across a 25-meter pool. She was struggling through some laps at the Whakatane Aquatic Center when “this guy came up to me and asked me if I wanted to learn to swim so he gave me a couple of lessons, for free, and I just kept at it.”   I looked at my wife and then back at the daughter, “Eddie? Eddie Vowles?” “Yeah, she said, that was his name.”

I’ve know Eddie for upwards of four months now and he’s spent well over twenty hours in the water with me, teaching me the broad principles and finer points of swimming. I’ve seen him working with other folks in the water and I’ve heard people tell me stories about how Eddie has helped them with their swimming life and me, well, I’m happy to be just one of the raft of swimmers that Eddie has collected here at the Whakatane Aquatics Center.

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Eddie and me at the Whakatane Aquatics Center

Surf Stoked

Shortly after we decided to move to New Zealand I was researching things to do in the town we would be living and learned that it boasted one of the best surf beaches on the North Island so I resolved to learn to surf.

We were still living in Ireland at the time and it would be another six months before we arrived to New Zealand. Still, I started watching YouTube videos on how to surf, reading surf books, watching surf movies, learning surf lingo and even practicing pop ups on my yoga mat. A few weeks before we left for New Zealand, I bought a wet suit and I started researching the best kind of board for the surf where we were going to live.

We arrived to Ohope and before I even got over my jet lag I called Debs, the owner of the Salt Spray Surf School here in Ohope Beach. It was mid-winter here in New Zealand. The water was about 55 degrees and the air during the day wasn’t much warmer. Not the best time to learn to surf. Plus, Debs was out of the country but she emailed me back and said that she’d be back in two weeks if I didn’t mind waiting.

I did. I had waited and prepared six months for this and I had exactly one year to learn to surf. Not a lot of time. Debs told me to hold on and within a day she got back to me and said one of her surf coaches, Troy, would call me shortly and arrange a lesson. Troy contacted me and we set up a lesson on a cold, cloudy Sunday afternoon in August (the worst part of winter here).

Troy and Debs have subsequently become dear and trusted friends. I see them just about every day down at West End. Troy is our kids’ swim coach at the Aquatics Center in town and both kids have enrolled in Debs’ surf school and surf camp (where Troy is also a coach) so they have both spent countless hours in the surf with Troy and Debs. Debs taught me about surf stoked, the exhilaration you feel after you just caught a rippin’ wave, the relief you feel when you have managed to catch, rather than be caught by, a wave and the sweet exhaustion you feel after a long and fun surf day. Troy seems to have a sixth sense for wind direction, incoming swells and the perfect time to get out in the surf so the first thing I do every morning is check the surf report and if it looks good, I’ll text Troy, “Surf looks good! You heading to West End?” Most of the time, he’s already there.

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Debs enjoying a well-deserved break after surf coaching at West End

We live on the beach in Ohope but the surf beach, West End, is about a mile from our house. West End is a long beach break ending at a headland that juts out from the beach on a 90-degree angle from the beach. The headland is key to the good surf at West End because it disrupts the winds that are generally blowing in from the northwest. Wind is always bad for surfers because whether it’s coming from offshore or onshore, the wind tends to either bat down the waves if it’s coming from the ocean (onshore) or make it harder to catch a wave if the wind is coming from the land (offshore). A little bit of an offshore wind can be nice because it might fluff up a wave a bit, but for the most part, surfers are looking for windless or nearly windless days.

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A long view of the headlands from our beach on Eruini Street

Besides helping surf conditions at West End, though, the headland, a steep ridge that is chock-a-block full of native New Zealand trees and bushes, towers over the beach and provides a gorgeous visual backdrop when you are bobbing on your board out beyond the breakers. During the early part of December, the Pohutakawa, a venerable New Zealand native tree, pushes out red blossoms and turns almost the entire headland area into a red and green Christmas card. You feel kind of tucked in and protected there underneath the headland and if you look off toward the east, you can see the long sweep of Ohope beach as it angles into the longer stretch of the East Cape, a beautiful and remote region of the North Island’s south eastern coast. On a clear day you can just make out Cape Runaway, the easternmost reach of the North Island and the place, it is believed, that some of the first canoes of the Te Arawa and Tainui made land after their voyage from Polynesia. The Cape eventually got its current name from that scoundrel, Captain James Cook.

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Eleanor getting ready to surf. The East Cape is in the background.

Sometimes when I’m sitting on my board taking in all these sights it feels like my heart is going to burst with joy.

West End is unique, too, for its open and friendly surf culture. A lot of surf beaches have acquired rather nasty reputations where the locals are aggressive and rude to novice or visiting surfers. This is especially the case at a lot of surf beaches in Australia and Southern California where the number of surfers seeking a wave far exceeds the number of waves to ride. It’s basic economics: high demand and low supply means people act like idiots. At West End, there are enough waves for everyone and it’s generally expected that everyone—locals and visitors alike—contribute to the laid back, cruiser vibe of the place. I rarely go to West End without finding an old friend or making a new one.

Initially, I had to get over a false assumption that surfing is only for twenty-somethings. At one point, I even typed “Can 50-year olds learn to surf?” into the Google search bar and was pleasantly surprised to find a number of websites written by 50-somethings like me who learned to surf later in life. The demographics on the line up (surf term for the line of surfers waiting for the next ride-able wave) at West End proved this. Sure, there were young kids bobbing on their short boards, ready to tear into the next big wave that comes their way, but there were also a lot of folks (men and women) with grayer hair and more wrinkles than me. Surfing has a reputation of being a male dominated sport but at West End I generally see a pretty even gender distribution as well.

I also had to get over a certain fear of injury. To the non-initiated, surfing can look pretty dangerous. You paddle out beyond the breakers, wait for a wave, pop up as it’s cresting and if you make any sort of mistake or lose your balance the wave eats you up. That, of course, elicited another internet search, “Is surfing safe?” and, turns out, unless you are riding the big waves at Oahu, surfing is a relatively injury-free sport. I’ve strained my back picking up my board at a weird angle but other than that I’ve been mostly injury free for the past six months.

Since I’ve learned to surf, I see the ocean in a whole new way. Most mornings after I wake up I make my coffee, walk a block to the beach and assess the surf. Surfers like what they call “long and clean” waves. The best way to see this is to imagine dominos set up in upright positions on the floor—you knock down one domino and the rest fall, one by one, right on down the line. A long clean wave is like falling dominos in that it will crest at a point and then steadily and consistently break down the line. If you catch the wave just as it’s breaking you can ride the face until it collapses and if you’re lucky that can translate to a 100 or so meter ride. I’ve never made it that far, yet.

Ohope is separated from its neighboring town, Whakatane, by a steep range of hills and to get from one town to the other you have to drive along a road, Gorge Road, that, as you near Ohope from Whakatane, provides aerial views of the West End surf. Sujata works in Whakatane and the swimming pool and grocery stores are over there, so I drive over the hill nearly every day. There’s a little turn off on Gorge Road that I’ll often take before I descend the hill on my way back to Ohope. I get out of my car and peek over the side of the overlook to see if there are any surfers out there and then I look out toward the ocean because you can see any large swells that might be coming in. On perfect surf days, when there is a consistent swell heading toward the beach, you can see long, graceful ribbons of unbroken waves loping toward the shore. Surfers look at that scene and say, “Corduroy, man, corduroy,” because the long swell lines resemble the tufted channels of your corduroy jeans.

When I see corduroy from the top of Gorge Road, I can feel my endorphins starting to surge.

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The view from the top of Gorge Road, looking down toward Ohope and West End
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Ohope stretches out across the top right of the photo. West End is below the ridge, bottom left.

If the ocean is rough or the waves aren’t breaking long and clean, surfing can sometimes feel like more work than it’s worth. I’ve been out on days where there is significantly more white water than clean wave faces. On days like that, getting out past the breakers is tedious, difficult work. The white water and the waves breaking in front of you keep pushing you back towards the shore and if you don’t get under the broken wave it slaps you in the face or, worse, knocks you off your board. At that point you are what surfers call, caught in, which just means you are caught in that nasty white water chaos. By the time you make it past the last breaking wave you have noodle arms and have to sit on the board until you catch your breath, steel your nerves and get feeling back in your limbs.

 

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A messy surf, easy to get caught in

When I first started surfing I’d pearl out all the time. When you pearl out, you get on the top of a wave and it feels like you are going to catch it but then the nose of your board digs into the wave face and you go ass over backward or the wave just picks you up and tumbles you sidelong. Pearling out is humiliating and until Troy told me to simply arch my back and shift my weigh slightly to the back of the board, it was my greatest surfing fear. Now, when my nose digs into the wave face I can either get out of it, or since I’m so far back on the board the wave usually just washes by with out scooping me up and making me look and feel like a fool.

Once you paddle out through the white water and after you’ve gotten over the top of the last breaking wave, you are out back or beyond the breaking waves. There, you can sit up on your board, catch your breath and while you are waiting for the next set to arrive, chat with other riders or just look around and the glorious ocean ahead of you.

I’m a goofy foot surfer, which means I surf with my left foot back. That works at West End because it’s usually a left-hand break, which means I’m not surfing with my back to the wave so I can see the face.

I’ll never be a great surfer. I’ll never do acrobatic back- or forehand cutbacks nor finish a ride by turning back over the top of the wave in a dramatic kick out. I’ll never even paddle my board out in waves that are over two meters. I’ll just be happy if I can surf for another decade or so and I’m content being an average surfer in the same way I’m content being an average piano and guitar player, scholar, teacher and swimmer. At my age, I strive for consistency and breath of experience, not excellence. Excellence is for youth. Getting out there and just doing it is for late middle age. If I can catch a wave and ride it trim across the face as it breaks behind me, I am ecstatic and when I get out of the water, I feel surf stoked. Like my friend, Maka, said to me one day as we were bobbing on our boards at West End, “The best surfer is the one who’s having the most fun.” If that’s true, then, on just about every day I’m out there, I, along with just about everybody else who’s bobbing, popping up, riding and falling off their boards at West End, are the best surfers on the beach.

Sweet As

I’ve taken some time off the blog because I was writing for the local paper and doing some of my own writing but now I’ve got some time and space to get back to blogging.

We’ve been in New Zealand for nearly six months now and I think all of us are feeling just a bit more Kiwi with each passing day.

One way you can tell how much, or how little, you are picking up and fitting into a culture is through language. The Kiwis, like most people and cultures, have unique ways of speaking and phrases that are distinct to them. And we have found that over time and for better and for worse, we are incorporating Kiwi-speak into our daily speech patterns.

Shortly after we arrived I remember talking to a guy in Whakatane. He asked me how long we were staying and I told him about a year to which he responded, “Sweet as.” I cocked my head to the side and gave him a quizzical look, “Sweet as what?” I wondered aloud. It was his turn at that point to cock his head to the side and flash a quizzical look at me. “What do you mean? Just sweet as.”

Over the course of the next few weeks I noticed that this phrase, this partial simile, showed up over and over in Kiwi conversation. A nice surfboard was “cool as,” a tasty treat was “good as,” the ocean on a brisk day was “cold as,” really hot coffee was “hot as” and a red and gold sunset was “beautiful as.”

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A “beautiful as” day at Otarawairere Bay

At those early stages of our time here, I remember thinking to myself, “God, that’s the weirdest phrase I’ve ever heard,” and promising myself that I would never pick up that habit.

At that point and time I was not comfortable at all with this linguistic pull up. I like my similes to be completed, not half stated and then left to dangle over the edge of interpretation.

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The “small as” Whakatane airport

Before I knew it though, my son, who is attending the local middle school, started peppering his chatter with this Kiwi-ism. “How was your day at school, son?” I’d ask, to which he’d nonchalantly reply, “Good as.” The first few weeks, I’d just shake my head, open my eyes real wide and ask, “Good as what? Your day has to be as good as something else! It can’t just be ‘good as. That just doesn’t make sense!” Of course, this is exactly what a 12-year old wants to hear. “Ah ha,” I could hear him thinking, “something else to annoy Dad. Duly noted.” Before long, my daughter had picked it up. When I got my new surfboard, she looked up at me and declared, “Dad, that is a sweet as surfboard!” [emphasis hers]

 

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My “long as” surf board

Sujata was next to go down that slippery slope of nebulous figurative speech. Her day at work was “Good as,” the tacos I made that night were “Delicious as!” the surf yesterday was “choppy as” and her Pilates class that afternoon was “hard as.”

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Our “excellent as” friend, Chris

The longer I’m here, though, the more I’m starting to realize that this way of speaking really fits Kiwi culture. New Zealanders are nothing if not laid back and their live-and-let-live worldview trickles down even into their speech patterns. There’s no need to finish the metaphor here—the listener will pick up your meaning and silently nod her head in approval. Or not. The incomplete simile is also, in many ways, a real testament to the collaborative nature of New Zealanders and their faith in human understanding. Here in New Zealand, the metaphor doesn’t need to be completed—the point does not need to be driven home and it’s the very incompleteness of the phrase that binds the speaker and the listener together. We understand each other to such a degree and on such a deep level that we don’t even need to finish what remains to be said.

All this is to say that I finally gave in and if you were to come by our house tonight and ask me how my day was or how the surf looks for tomorrow, I’d probably turn to you, smile, and say, “Sweet as.”

 

In which I referee community basketball games

We’ve been living in New Zealand for nearly two months now, and one of the best things I’ve done to date has been refereeing a weekly basketball tournament at one of the local high schools in Whakatane.

Before we left America for New Zealand, I made a list of the sorts of things I wanted to do and get involved in during our year here in the land of the long white cloud. Getting involved in a youth basketball league was in the top five, so shortly after we arrived I did some asking around and was directed to a man named Te Kawe Ratu, a teacher at Trident High School in Whakatane and the coach of the women’s basketball team there.

Te Kawe told me that he runs a weekly basketball league on Monday nights and Trident and he invited me to drop by.

So I did.

The first week, I just sat there and watched the games. Midway through the third game, the score keeper up and left. I noticed this, slid into his chair and commenced keeping score. Te Kawe gave me a thumbs up and asked me to come back the following week.

So I did.

At the beginning of the second week of games, Te Kawe threw me a refs whistle and said, “You’re in charge of gym 2.”

I told him that I wasn’t aware of a second gym. He nonchalantly pointed down a hallway that I commenced to run down until I ran into gym two.

I’ve never refereed a basketball game in my life. All those hours of watching college and professional basketball since I was a small boy, though, came in handy that night when I was in charge of gym 2.

I made a couple of bad calls, but for the most part, all went smoothly and I was able to keep a modicum of control over the three games I refereed.

The following week, though, I was prepared. I spent the better part of the week watching YouTube videos focused on basketball ref tutorials. I watched and re-watched videos on how to call a charge (when an offensive player with the ball runs into a defensive player) against a block (when the defensive player fouls an oncoming offensive player with the ball). I studied the different hand signals and even illustrated them in my notebook. Put your hand behind your head for a charge. Both hands on you’re your hips for a block. Grab your right forearm with your left hand and open your right hand for a hand check. Two thumbs up for a jump ball.

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Hand signals, with weekly menu at the top

By the third week, I was feeling very comfortable with the whistle. It’s a good thing, too, because that week I had to ref a game between Whakatane High School and a team from the hospital where Sujata works. When the hospital team walked on the floor they all pointed to me and said, “You are Dr. Fretz’ husband, right?”

This made me slightly nervous. What is I really screwed up? They’d tell Sujata and then she’d make fun of me.

And, as it turned out, that game was a doozy. I suspect these two teams had met up before and there was a bit more tension than friendly competition. There was a lot of pushing, some angry words and it culminated at the end of the first half with one of the players kicking the ball in frustration. Yes, I gave him a technical foul.

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View from the sidelines

I started realizing very quickly that refereeing basketball, probably any sport is much less about getting the calls correct every time as it is about keeping control over the game.

So, during the next game, I called things pretty tight for the first five minutes. Any swat was a foul, any time a defensive player put his hands on an offensive player with the ball was a hand check. This had an interesting effect of keeping the players honest right out of the blocks and that tenor was maintained throughout the rest of the game.

Beyond all that, though, what I enjoyed most about the Monday nights at Trident high school was getting to know the high school students and community members who came out to play. All of them, even the guy who kicked the ball, were exceedingly kind and friendly. They made me feel welcome and respected, they gave their teammates and opponents and me hugs after the games and they all just comported themselves with grace and good humor. Oh, they also made fun of my Maori pronunciations and they tried to help me say things correctly.

Whakatane is a small, rural community so things like community basketball leagues look different than they do in, say, Denver. It wasn’t unusual for some players to be shoeless on the court. Shoes are, by the way, pretty optional across New Zealand. My kids have taken up the shoeless habit, sneaking out of the house for school on more than a few occasions without any shoes on their feet. Sometimes, it went the other way and I’d see kids on the court wearing a pair of Wellies. Most of the time, though, they just had normal basketball shoes on.

Basketball is a popular sport here–Steven Adams, the awesome center for the Oklahoma Thunder is from Rotorua, a town not far from Whakatane. The Kiwis often beat the Aussies (who think they are pretty good at hoops), to the never-ending anger of the Aussies. Rugby, though, is the reigning national sport, so basketball and other sports like netball and field hockey take second seats to rugby. That said, the level of play here is decent, and some of the kids are quite good and could compete with their American counterparts.

What’s more, the league was co-ed and it was required to have at least two women on the court for each team at all times. I found this to be an excellent rule as it gave the men and women opportunities to, as Te Kawe, told me, “trust each other and learn how to respect each other.” Moreover, aside from the tense game I described above, the co-ed nature of the league, just made the games more fun and congenial.

Last night was the final game until next season. I’m glad that I was able to participate even for these six weeks and now I can continue studying up on my refereeing skills for next season.

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The final minutes of the league championship game

 

 

In Which I Break a Beer Bottle and Receive a Pen, Search for Cream of Wheat and Ride Mountain Bikes in Rotorua

Over the course of the past year we have travelled around the world and now we are settled in New Zealand for one year. One of the great joys of traveling the way we’ve been traveling has been getting to know people who live in the cities and towns where we’ve done long stays.

In Timisoara, Romania, we became fast and forever friends with Emil and all the good people at Viniloteca. Also in Timisoara, we forged a rich and what will be a lasting friendship with Rob and Dana and their son, Sebastian. They came to visit us in Paris before we left Europe in June and when we get back to the States we’ll visit them in Illinois. My students at the University of the West—The Roxis, Diana, Deni, Isabelle and many others—still send us emails and social media messages, wishing us well and asking about the children. I hope to see some of them, some day, back in America or wherever we, and they, might find ourselves in the same place. In a craft brew pub in Lisbon, we struck up a conversation with a lovely British couple, Jon and Betty, and ended up spending a day with them in London when we visited their great city. Victor, a sweet and thoughtful young man we met on a bike ride in Siem Reap, Cambodia met up with us in his hometown of Seville, Spain over the holidays and we spent a wonderful Saturday together sipping vino naranja and exploring modern and medieval Seville.

We are three weeks into our one-year Kiwi tenure and over the course of that short time, I’ve made more friends, talked to more strangers, and felt more welcomed than I could have ever imagined.

Part of this is my own frame of mind. Since I’m not working or officially associated with anything here, I didn’t want to become an isolated expat wandering the streets and beaches alone and pushing my nose in a book to keep out the world. So I contacted the local newspaper, The Beacon, and arranged to write a few travel pieces as well as short profiles of Whakatane and Ohope Beach community members. Here is a travel piece they published about a baseball game we saw in Japan. I’ve done two interviews with community members—a founder of the Whakatane community garden and a famous rugby player who coaches here in Whakatane—and those pieces should be published shortly.

I also make a point of talking with anyone who is willing to chat, and it has been my good fortune so far that Kiwis love to talk. I chat with the librarians at the public library about their public exhibition and I ask them for good books on New Zealand history. I met a Belfast woman in a coffee shop and we chatted about Ireland and what it’s like to live here in Whakatane (the weather is 100% better, for one). I met a couple who run the Whakatane Historical Society and they invited me to their house to look over past publications of the Historical Society and examine archival material they keep at their home. I walked into the local music store and ended up staying there for an hour, playing guitar and chatting with the owner about surfing and stand up paddle boards. I am friendly with the manager of the aquatic center, where I swim, and she’s told me stories about the recent flood in the neighboring community of Edgecum where she is a firefighter. I talk with bank tellers, baristas, grocery store clerks and even passersby.

It’s not really my natural inclination to be this friendly, and as I get older and the more calcified and distrustful the culture of America becomes, the more inward, cautious and suspicious I have become. New Zealand, because it is a more open, trusting and civil society than America has helped me to open up a bit to my surroundings. I’ve met other Americans over here who feel the same way.

Here are a few short vignettes on some of the interactions I’ve had with some of the good people in Whakatane and Ohope:

The first week we were here in Whakatane, I popped into one of the local bike stores, Bike Barn, to look at some mountain bikes. I started talking with Johnny, the owner of the shop. As I was getting ready to leave he said, “Come by sometime and we’ll go have a coffee,” so a couple of days later, I took him up on his offer and stopped by the shop. We talked a bit more and he asked, “What are you doing tomorrow? How about we go for a bike ride?” The next morning I showed up at the shop. Johnny had his truck loaded with two mountain bikes as well as snacks, energy drinks and lunch for both of us. We hopped in the truck and drove an hour down the road to Rotorua, chatting the entire way about family, the landscape, flower and fauna of New Zealand and life in general. Rotorua is the mountain biking capital of New Zealand and we rode in a Redwood forest that boasts 200 km of single track trails and that include a combination of gnarly, root-infested trails that nearly gave me a heart attack as well as long, sloping, loamy trails that snaked through dense forests and made me smile.

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Johnny and me after our ride through the Redwoods

 

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Rotorua trail

Yesterday I had a fun adventure looking for Cream of Wheat in Whakatane. Before we left America in July, we stopped to see my in-laws in the Bay Area. My mother-in-law knows that I love an Indian dish called Upma so she very kindly made it for me everyday we were there (thank you, Aji) and even spent a morning in the kitchen teaching me how to make her Upma recipe. Sujata has told me that every time she has spoken to her mom since we’ve arrived in New Zealand, Aji asks, “Has Eric made Upma yet?” I haven’t as of yet because I haven’t been able to find Upma’s primary ingredient, Cream of Wheat, in the grocery store. Yesterday, though, I promised myself that I would find Cream of Wheat in Whakatane so after I got the kids off to school, I got in the car, and started my search.

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Aji’s Upma recipe

I stopped in at the Pack-N-Save in the Kope district. No Cream of Wheat. Ditto at the Countdown in the city center. Anxiously walking through the streets at mid-morning, I decided to duck into a store called Bin-In. “Man,” I thought, “if they don’t have Cream of Wheat, nobody does.” I walked in with my head held high and my shoulders back and approached the clerk, whose name was Julie, “Hello, Do you have Cream of Wheat?” Julie looked up from her register and quizzed me back, “Cream of Wheat?” and then cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted across the store, “Darla, Cream of Wheat?” Darla looked up from what she was doing and trotted over, “Cream of Wheat? Cream. Of. Wheat.” Never heard of it. Hang on. “Joshua,” Darla queried to a young man walking by. “Cream of Wheat?” to which Joshua replied, “Cream of Wheat? Huh.” Customers with handfuls of bags gathered around and everyone was muttering “cream of wheat.” I thought for a second that I could probably get everyone in the store to say it in some form or another so I just hung fire in the middle of the huddle, affirming the question, “Yes, Cream of Wheat.” “Is it moist, or is it dry?” an elderly woman asked me, “Because the ‘cream’ part suggests it’s moist.” I told her it was dry and she looked at me, sceptically. Joshua, in the meantime, had waltzed to the back room and approached the huddle with a satisfied smile, “Semolina!” he cried, and everyone in the huddle threw up their hands with relief and then promptly left the store.

Me, too, after I purchased a big bag of semolina. Upma for brunch on Sunday!

Earlier this week, I stopped by the liquor store in Ohope to grab a six-pack and when I pulled the package of Mac’s Rockhopper off the shelf, two of the bottles slid out and crashed to the floor. One of the clerks, Jim, who I’ve become friendly with because he, like me, is a craft brew fan, walked over, as I apologized profusely. Jim looked at the glass and beer all over the floor and then looked at the case and said, “Not your fault, Eric. The case was ripped. No drama.” I got another six pack, paid for it and on my way out, Jim, feeling bad, I suspect, because I felt bad that I broke the beer bottles, waved me back. His arm was extended toward me and he was holding a pen. “Here, Eric, take this.” “Thanks, Jim,” I said, and then added as I was walking out the door, “What a country, you smash some beer bottles on the floor and they give you free pen.” Jim laughed. I’ll see him again in a few days.

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Tree pose, Ohope Beach

In Which We Decide to Move to New Zealand for a Year

We were somewhere in southeast Asia last September–I think it was Cambodia. I was perusing the U.S. section of The New York Times when I looked up from my computer and said to Sujata, “You might want to see about getting a job abroad, just in case.” She looked at me slightly incredulously and said, “Are you kidding? He’s not going to win,” but then she thought better about it and said, “Okay. I’ll look into it.”

A few weeks later, Sujata called a headhunting firm that places American doctors in New Zealand hospitals. There were emails and phone calls and then family conversations about what it would be like to live in New Zealand for a year.

New Zealand was our first stop after we left the United States in July of 2016. We spent a week there hiking and cycling on the North Island.  To my English major mind, continuing and extending our journey where it began felt apt. Returning to the beginning to assess the past and move forward into the future made sense and felt right to all of us. “We shall not cease from exploration,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Still, New Zealand remained a poetic abstraction until we woke up in Budapest on 10 November, the day after the American election. The political and cultural unravelling of America quickly accelerated. We didn’t like what we saw, so Sujata put her foot down a little harder on the New Zealand pedal.

One day, the headhunting firm called to say there was a position open in Whakatane, a small beach community on the North Island’s Bay of Plenty.

Was she interested?

She was.

The interview was conducted, a contract was sent and signed and, just like that, our year-long adventure turned into a two-year expatriation.

I thought the children would chafe at the thought of being away from home for another year. They have thrived this year, but they miss their friends and their life in Denver. At the same time, they have embraced the excitement of life on the road. They especially love the freedom of living in Ireland where they can walk to and from school or the public library on their own or wander around the estate gathering up their friends for a soccer match on the nearby pitches.  No matter how or when we broached the issue, they consistently said they wanted to keep rolling and landing in New Zealand for a year was quite alright with them.

Of the four of us, I was probably the most ambivalent. I have enjoyed traveling and teaching abroad for the year, but I was looking forward to getting back to Regis, getting the band back together and picking up our life in Denver.

That said, I’m looking forward to slipping into a lower gear for a year. Preparing for and then actually accomplishing the Fulbright and the semester in Ireland has taken the better part of three years, so for my part, hanging out on the beach in New Zealand seems splendid. Regis gave me a leave of absence and there aren’t any universities near Whakatane so, unless Sujata is keeping something from me, I’ll have a relatively unencumbered life. And, I’m not at all worried about feeling bored or isolated: I think I secured an unpaid internship at the local newspaper in Whakatane, so it’s shaping up to be a year of writing, reading, swimming, cycling, and running on the beach.

We may very well have packed up and gone to New Zealand apart from the results of the American election. Our year abroad has been organized around my professional life and Sujata, who is a talented physician, has been Travel Guide In Chief. I’ll let her write about how she feels about going back to work, but I do know that the prospect of working in Whakatane where she will be primarily working with the local Maori community felt like a professional opportunity that she couldn’t pass up.

Still, when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that our decision to go to New Zealand is as much a political decision to stay away from the United States. I realize that despite the political and cultural turmoil, things go on as usual for most Americans. Ordinary Americans wake up every morning, kiss their partners and children goodbye and walk out into their communities to do their work and to live their lives. At the same time, it’s hard to read news reports of white Americans shooting and terrorizing Indian Americans, defacing Jewish cemeteries and threatening people of color and feel excited about returning.

Why would we bring our kids back to that if we didn’t have to?

Would you?

We have every intention of returning to the States in July of 2018. I’ve got a job that I love, we all miss our friends and even though we’ve travelled all over the world for the past eight months, Denver still feels like our home and we miss our life there.

That said, it’s strange to think about being away from home for the space of two years. And it’s even stranger to realize/admit that a significant reason for not returning has to do with the political and cultural dynamic back in the States. Since we left the States in July of 2016 we have been ‘traveling abroad.’ When we leave for New Zealand, though, on 1 August 2017 we’ll be expatriates, a romantic and provocatively ambiguous word.

Over the course of my life, I’ve certainly harbored fantasies of leaving the States, but even now, as those fantasies become a temporary reality, I feel more American than ever. I hate what’s happening in my country and I am appalled by the level of vitriol, duplicity and arrogance that is emanating from the Twitter account and executive orders of #45. At the same time, I realize, more than ever, that American ideals are worth keeping and fighting for. My America is still the America of compassion, beauty, plurality, moral bravery and imagination. It’s the America of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. There’s serious damage being done in the States right now by low-minded people, but they will never overshadow the people and the work of the greatest American minds.