Feb 20, 2009

Diminishing Returns

Theses two shots of George, taken 40 years apart, tell an interesting story. In the top shot he’s riding a Stripes Down Hodgeman in 1969 -- the best surf mat of that era, but a slug by today’s standards -- in virtually perfect, uncrowded surf. In the lower shot, he’s riding a state-of-the-art nylon mat a few days ago in what amounts to a slop wave on a slop day at a slop spot.

I had the same reaction as Dale S. when I first saw those shots of George taken a few days back at Wategoes. It seemed like a shame. Here’s one of the 10 best surfers from the past 100 years, and he isn’t able to express his art in waves that are anywhere near the quality that were once commonplace for him. The intensity of the local crowds have overwhelmed a man who is both in his mid 60’s, and who grew up riding excellent, uncrowded surf. It just isn’t in the cards for him to crack Lennox with 85 guys out in hopes of snagging a few good waves. Even if he succeeded, which he surely would, it wouldn’t be a meaningful experience for him.

So, in many ways, George is being true to what has always motivated him to surf. And that’s why I have so much respect for him as a person. Too many times I’ve pulled up to some out of the way break with him on a marginal day, waited 15 minutes for a rideable wave to barely break, then watched him tear off his civvies, pull on a wetsuit and run into the water. That’s the real reason why George Greenough, and anyone like him, is a great surfer. Whatever perfect surf he once rode -- and the incredible equipment he developed to ride it -- were a distant second to the experience of simply being in the ocean. The fact that he had these experiences growing up surfing in an idyllic place like Santa Barbara in the 50’s is just a footnote.

“Diminishing returns” describes the circumstance most of us are dealing with in terms of surfing and in life…especially if we’re over 50. But it’s all relative. I’m sitting up here in Walla Walla, Washington, of all places, caring for my mother who’s about to turn 91. My wife Gloria and I are watching a woman in dramatic decline. A woman who as recently as 3 years ago was taking care of her neighbors’ homes while they were away. It’s killing both Gloria and I to see her fade mentally and physically. And it’s killing me to do it in a place 5 hours from the ocean. I'd give anything to paddle out somewhere and catch a wave...any wave. But every single day here carries responsibility and has meaning. The next wave I ride, however mediocre, will probably the best wave of my life. The law of diminishing returns will be reversed, if only for a day.

When I saw Simon Perini’s shot of George on the beach with the mat I sent him 10 days earlier, I have to say, it was one of the most surrealistic moments of my entire life. I was a child when I first saw George burn across the wall between the Indicator and the Cove at Rincon on a mat. Now, here I am, some 45 years later, sending mats I made to the same guy. And my mother, who was there for my entire board/mat making experience, is now reduced to being my child, like so many aging parents. For a moment, when I saw that photo, I lost all sense of time. It was truly a case of, “Where did the last 45 years go???”


Anonymous said...

I think that to some extent what you say is true,but the fact is that there are so many great surf spots that are not so crowded;for example where i live now,Japan,where i come from,the UK,and where I have surfed,Norway,Tonga,solomon Isalnds etc.
It is just of matter(!)of perspective....

Eef said...

Thanks for this piece! It really touched me because it reminds me so much of the last months/weeks of my grandmother (she died last year).

And like said, even a small crumbly wave can feel like the best wave of your live. It's all in the perspective.

the wave George slides down in the recent picture would be a very decent wave around here :D gotto love those small walls of water.


Alkmaar, Holland

nathanoj said...

Thanks for sharing that poignant piece Paul.

bluey said...

this touched me Paul, I went through a similar experience with my Grandmother who passed away last year at 94, I moved from Sydney Northern Beaches to bleak Lincolnshire in the UK so I could look after her for a time and organise live in home care for her, terribly sad to see your loved ones go through this.

If I have the choice of perfect waves with a agressive pack of surfers, or grovely waves with a mellow vibe, I certainly know which session will leave me with a better feeling when I leave the water....


Surfsister said...

I'm speechless and very proud to call you a friend.

Anonymous said...

Touched me as well, for many reasons...surf days of old, parents. My Dad also was as you describe before he passed two years ago at the age of 80. I still can't believe he's not here anymore.
Our living parents are what shield us from thoughts of our own mortality.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Paul for this words, everything you wrote are absolutely true ! I've been living the same in 1997.... I know what you feel and try to share your pain, take care, we love you ! About George, everyone on this blog knows excactly who he is, I mean what kind of human being, we love him too !

PJD said...

What you, and your wife, are doing for your mom is the highest act that any human can do for another human. In the old country, we call that a mitsva, or an unselfish act.
You and your wife, are giving of yourselves to care for your mom at the end of her life. We should all be so lucky to have such devoted children helping us into the next set wave.
I watched my mom go through a similar transformation, from brilliant attorney who represented The Smothers Brothers against CBS, into a needy infant. It was very hard watching that happen.
As to the GG pics, I have very low expectations when going to the beach, except for having fun. I mat in shitty waves in Torrance beachbreaks that are uncrowded. When I surf Malibu on my Liddles, I'm lucky to get one or two in a few hours, because of the oversized Gondolas and longboards and masses in the water.
I have fun on what I get. No aggro, just fun.
I have had plenty of great Ranch, Pitas, Rincon, and Malibu in my 45 years of surfing, and those days will always be with me.
When I speak with 90 year olds Tulie Clark and Fenton Scholes, whose stories of empty Malibu, Topanga, PV Cove, and Killer Dana,in the 30's-50's, make my jaw drop. They continued surfing well into the overcrowded 1990's just for the fun of it.
Keep the faith and the memories of those great waves that you have had and will have in the future.
I admire you and your wife for your unselfish devotion in the caring of your mom.
Paul Diamond

misterdirk said...

I can't recall who said it, but I remember hearing as a young man that if you don't simply hang it up, you're going to spend the larger proportion of your surfing career as a duffer rather than a top gun. And that's if you're lucky! I cherish every day that I get to ride, it'll end too soon.

borntoloser said...

PG-Very nicely written. I appreciate your personal reflections and perspective through the lens of a lifelong mat rider.

Dale, the mat is still going great in a variety of conditions and bringin out a variety of smiles! Thanks!


Anonymous said...

I want to thank everyone who wrote in this comments section, and who wrote me personally regarding this posting. I never dreamed it would strike a chord with so many people, and it's very gratifying.

Thank you all!

Pahl Dixon said...

Where does the time go? And how is it that we travel through time in these corkscewing circular loops? (So similar to waves!) Baby-child-adult-child-baby is such a strong recurring theme. Babystep into this world and babystep out again...

Matt-paipo-longboard-shortboard-longboard-paipo-mat! Looking back on my own 48 years of surfing, I've done the time loop, and am still completely fit and keen.

So what's next in surfing? How do we sidestep into a new loop? Where do we look for a fresh babystep into surfing's uncharted future?

Mats point the way: Ultra-light. Soft and safe. easily transportable. Instantly adjustable. Above and beyond chest-beating egotism. Endlessly challenging. Best when shared. Full of amazing potential... -- All of which also desribes babies.

What an amazing time on Earth! We can reincarnate while still living, start fresh, and look back at our previous lifetime(s).

What does it all mean? I don't know. Everyone who is really old says the same thing: "Have fun while you can and make sure everyone knows that you love them!"

Maybe surfmats are the ultimate evolutionary surfing babystep? They are heaps of fun, require gentle care, and we love them.

Hat's off to the mat mavens and mavericks for having the sensitivity to create such super-simple devices to transport us into realms of cosmic mystery!!! (Each wave being a veritable lifetime.)

Good on you, Gloria and Paul, for your perseverance and dedication.

Anonymous said...

George was my hero from the first time I saw him...early 70's at Rincon, I never saw him on a mat but heard lots of stories...I even had a foamy kneeboard with a Greenough hull that Dennis Benedum shaped out of the Red Barn in Carp..saw George hanging out there many times...best experience was spliting peaks with him at the Indicator with no one else able to ride that peak....I too have been dealing with Mom issues so I can relate...cheers

R4TH said...

Paul...a thoughtful piece of writing, thanks...having just returned from a spell in byron bay, and being new to the mat, it was awesome to watch GG and and few friends surfing in isolation each day, right off the point, the easterly most headland of australia...it doesn't get more isolated than that!...very few people surf that far out at watego's and there were bigger waves than the one pictured here obviously. GG still seems so effortless in his control and speed on the mat, and what he's doing is so subtle, (call it graceful manipulation) it was amazing to see...we finally braved that break on our last day, making the mat count four, board count zero, the waves were perfect, seemingly endless rides, then the frenzy path back for the next one where George could occasionally be seen dolphin kicking-sliding forward into position and disappearing along the wave at break neck speed.