I remember my first time snowboarding like it was yesterday. I borrowed a hand-me-down onesie, two sizes too big, black with patches of neon blue on the arms, day-glo pink on the legs. My rental boots were too small, the snowboard a battered, chipped thing. I waved goodbye to my family and joined the rest of the lesson takers pushed toward the smiling instructor by their parents. Together we learned the falling leaf technique and spent the afternoon occasionally using it to slip awkwardly down the icy bunny slope, though mostly we just fell, bruising our asses, our hips, laughing ashamedly and struggling to get up. We’d grab hold of the tow rope dragging us unsteadily back to the top, the much better kids skiing uphill around us somehow (what magic is this?), snickering as they headed for the terrain park nearby. Then we’d let go of the rope, our arms flailing at the air for purchase, before slowly, but still at a speed far too difficult for our yet untrained bodies to control, side-slipping down the ten-degree slope.
Expertise is great and all, but so is the freedom of sucking at a new pursuit.
I should probably mention here that I was a little bit older than the rest of the 9 and 10 year-olds in the beginner’s group. I was, let’s see, about 32 years old at the time. Married, car payment, everything.
Woulda traded all that in a second for the lack of ego and quick-learning ability of the snot-nosed kids around me who were having no trouble at all learning the ropes. At the end of the day, they were trundling up the mountain, legs swinging happily on chair lifts, newly minted snowboarders. I, physically and emotionally bruised, headed for the bar. I may not have learned to shred that day, but I was already an ápres expert.
That humbling experience comes to mind every time I see an adult beginner awkwardly paddling a surfboard in the shorebreak, spinning in circles, facing the wrong way, their chest too close to the deck, their body too far back toward the board’s tail. Learning to surf is hard. To achieve even the barest hint of grace and dignity while riding a surfboard takes roughly a decade of constant surfing. Yet even here, in freezing, punishing Northern California surf, they’re here, newcomers trading the confidence and security of their well-adjusted adult lives for a few hours, turning into hopelessly vulnerable newbs, unwittingly getting in the way of us jaded, hardcore lifelong surfers, often ruining our rides, and having an absolute blast doing it.
And that is awesome.
My life has revolved around surfing for the better part of 25 years. It took a long time to become proficient, and as a core surfer, I treasure and value my expertise like it’s a family member. It’s part of me and at times, has defined me. I’ve also along the way forgotten the simple joys of playing in the ocean with no bullshit expectations about performance level or wave count or a finicky choosiness about wave conditions. Expertise is great and all, but so is the freedom of sucking at a new pursuit.
Last summer, I got really, REALLY into mountain biking. I’d always enjoyed cycling, often on singletrack, but had yet to cannonball into the dirty, expensive, and wonderful world of mtbs. Like my snowboarding experience, my first few times on local singletracks were hilariously inept. Astride a bright purple and pink hardtail, I pushed my ride up even the tamest of hills, and walked over the minor-est of roots and rock gardens. I’d ride the brakes downhill, always pulling over to let better riders pass.
Did I care? I did not care. Riding bikes on trails through a forest is really, really fun. Like face-splitting smile and laughing fun. I didn’t really know enough to judge trail conditions as good or bad, and certainly didn’t know enough about performance to know where I landed on the performance scale (obviously at the very bottom). The simple, uncomplicated fun was pure and joyous. I was a kid, splashing around in the whitewater at the beach for the very first time. Did lifer cyclists snicker? Probably. But so what.
Being new at mountain biking reinvigorated my relationship with surfing. It reminded me that this is supposed to be fun, uncomplicated, not a serious undertaking. I haven’t tried snowboarding again since that humiliating day in the neon a few years back, but being a newb in one pursuit throws wide open the door to being a newb in another. This winter, I’ll learn.
And how about a round of applause for the adult learner? So easily mocked, but braver than us lifers who hold on tightly to our expertise and forget that we too had to learn. Sure, maybe we were kids, but it’s far easier to learn when you don’t have decades of ego pumping you up to fear failure and humiliation.
More of that eager optimism about learning the new is something I hope to chase for the rest of my life.