Joe Chafkin

PHOTOS: Max Houtzager

“There is no such thing as a waste of time, save the act of fretful indecision.”

First light dances about the misty uncertainty of a summer dawn patrol session, opaque water gray from an overhanging tuft of precipitation to be burned off in a few hours, just like the breakfast burrito you shoved into your face immediately upon waking up. Days like this are immune to preconception; early hours swathe the coastline in the grim and glossy mystique of June gloom. All there is to do is paddle out, see for yourself. Otherwise, you could waste hours on shore agonizing over the hazy riddle before you. Shrouded in California fog, only visible for moments as they feather and topple into turbulent oblivion — are such waves motivation enough to pull on your wetsuit, still soaking and frigid from yesterday’s session? Taking into account Surfline’s meager reassurances, it’s pretty unclear.

And on such mornings, I tend to find myself staring in the half light at the layers of wax on my favorite board. I am no longer an obsessive neat-freak when it comes to my surfboards. I certainly was this way right after purchasing my first serious board—that is, until it got its first ding. After that initial repair, I progressively came to accept the imperfection, the inevitability of wear-and-tear over the course of everyday life. When I get a bit careless, the dings multiply, overlaying wax accumulates, globbed on so as to plug those tiny crevices which might eventually waterlog my craft. I’ll get a more permanent fix soon, I often think to myself, but today, I surf. I rarely use the stripping edge of my wax comb, instead generally opting for its opposite side, using plastic teeth to uproot settled patches of slickness. At least to some extent, even if I tried — really went at it with the sharp plastic edge — that wax, normally construed as temporary, will nevertheless remain, substantial or residual. And along with it come those grains of stone it has collected over years, melting every time to incorporate a little piece of its resting place in an abrasive memorial to every session that’s ever been. Imprints of actions completed, sessions surfed. Even as my consciousness compounds memories of previous rides, as those individual waves become harder and harder to distinguish from one another, there remains a sort of log amid the fog.

You could drive yourself crazy trying to comb through sticky layers of past lives, to extricate the current self from its previous iterations, digging around for grains of substantiality embedded in an integral body which engulfs the past, absorbs them as components virtually unrecognizable outside of the present whole. Colored waxes temporarily demarcate individual layers, but inevitably melt into one another; fragmentary moments fold over each other to create some sort of unity. A friend of mine failed miserably in his attempt to create a surf wax candle, and — cutting his losses — the bodies of each original stick he melted down were ultimately just turned into a larger stick of wax, its hue marbled and indistinct. He gifted me the greenish-reddish-whitish accident; I applied it liberally to my board in one sitting before hiking down to a nearby break in Ventura. It melted along the way, then hardened with Pacific chill, and melted again on my return, all the while assimilating particles of my day.

At the end of the day, the whole is what makes sense: it’s concrete, it’s the board sitting in my car right now. It’s not a final product. It will change, but it’s what I’ve got so far. It’s who I am in this moment, which will be different by day’s end. A few minutes of staring at the sand, and I could begin to roughly approximate the origin of those superficial grains that had most recently clung to my sharp nose, my hard epoxy body, over years’ worth of scores and scars and scratches: sands of white gypsum, of black volcanic rock, pink feldspars of granite eroded over thousands of years. Form whittled down with time from that of the glorious boulder undeniable in its substance and into fractions what it once was. Intermingling with the shards of foreign bodies that share stories equally complex, the grain finds itself reabsorbed, integrated into a new whole that lacks a single point of origin. My board has seen its fair share of waves — each one was different, but each one was basically the same. As is true of my memories themselves, it will remain difficult to decipher each from the other; the cohesive whole of the present will be perpetually all I know, the sole source of consistency in my experience. Each moment, viewed as a distinct entity, was upon reflection quite separate from its counterparts. Where do we draw the borders around an instant, around any particular unit of time? Is there any point in trying to separate each session, to conceptualize each memory as distinct? Or, like resignation to the reality of dings, to the wear-and-tear of life, is this melting and concretizing — this cycle of evaporation and condensation, the crystallization of my previous selves into a being tolerably unified in its existence — an inevitability?

And so my eyes settle upon — stick to — this topmost layer of wax on the days of June gloom uncertainty. I keep in mind the strata below. Because no matter the session that awaits, incredible or not, I rest confident of its incorporation into a salty and thrilling whole, a concrete perplexing in its roots but nonetheless the miraculously tangible sum of disparate, ethereal components only observable in the unison of an instant. Recollections are the individual’s memory of a memory no longer existent in its pure form, a fleeting account that was only relevant for an instant. It’s a slightly different story each time, for people are never the same after the fact, whatever the fact might be. The human mind is engaged in a continual single-player game of telephone, always capturing a picture of a picture of a picture. It’s new, it’s different each time, but is it any less beautiful, any less real?

There is no use waiting around on the shore, fretting over the significance of opportunities past or promised, all the while missing those revelatory moments — presence in the present — which come to function as building blocks for the big picture; there is no such thing as a waste of time, save the act of fretful indecision. Uncertainty is the medium through which the present may become actualized — every action corresponds to another before it, the unprecedented builds upon the unprecedented. We all operate under certain expectations, but expectations that are tempered by the incontestable fact that plans do not always pan out. Fear of the unplanned can limit our potential to experience life unfettered, for true individuality is forged by our reactions to the unpredictable. You cannot always have control of the reigns; time in the ocean quickly acquaints the waterman with this reality. Maybe I have an amazing ride, and it goes on to inform my life story, the end-product, making the result that much more beautiful and exhilarating. Or maybe the waves are completely blown out, I catch nothing, and another chapter detailing the maddening anticipation of the search is added into my book’s final draft. Each chapter, each moment, is always informed by what came before and by what happens next. All of those rides, in their complexities and specificities, might — like waves in the fog — fade frothily into void, but the gradual combination of these instances is the longest ride, and the only ride, that we’ll ever get. Life is an ever-expanding puddle to pool to pond to planet, the sum of its true oceanic whole inaccessible until that moment of deathly completion, when the cycle of uncertainty and reaction is closed. Our responses to the unexpected come to characterize who we are, for better or worse. And either way, getting wet is the most worthwhile thing we can do.

Surfers: Zachary Ostroff and Amado Stachenfeld on a We Quit the Plain 9′ something