Increments Of Fear


People have a tendency to romanticize the passing and changings of seasons, particularly, I think, in places where seasons’ existence is a subject of debate to begin with. Californians, especially those of the southern variety, often look wistfully East, imagining for themselves a fresh start, feeling some vague longing to “experience the seasons.” That the four seasons of their dreams can be rudely reduced to “miserably cold” and “miserably hot,” evidently does little to stem the tide of their enthusiasm. I think the platitude of not knowing how good you have something until you have it no longer holds especial truth in matters of meteorology.

Yet there is something there, in this shifting of the air around us, whether from miserably hot to miserably cold or from mildly warm to a bit less mildly warm, that prompts a parallel shifting and sorting in our thoughts, a rearranging and a reassessing. I was reminded of this recently, watching the curtain beginning to close on another summer.

The state of California was kind enough to pay me this summer to sit at the beach and people-watch, and occasionally people-intervene among those citizens who seemed intent on drowning (you’d be surprised by the number of people who come to the beach each day with the express intent to drown). It’s a wonderful job not just for the obvious reasons, but also for some of the particular, the little human interactions that color the day. There is an inherent anxiety in standing in a tower watching things as mysterious and unpredictable as human beings in such close proximity to a thing as mysterious and unpredictable as the ocean, but there is also great joy in watching the two interact in the magical way only man and water can.

Maybe another way of saying this is there was an adjustment period before I was comfortable knowing the children screaming on the shoreline are doing so in joy, not terror. And another adjustment period when I considered the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference.

My brother recently received a letter in the mail from the United States Olympic Committee, formally inviting him to participate in the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. He’ll turn 30 that year. His running career began his freshman year of high school, when he was 15, meaning that when he toes the line that February morning in Los Angeles, almost half his life will have been spent as a competitive runner. There’s something in that sort of longevity, and maybe also in its specificity, that gives pause. It’s remarkable, really.

I can remember his first cross country season. He was always the smallest kid in every class growing up, and if he was over five foot and a hundred pounds his freshman year, it wasn’t by much in either case. And while freshmen races at high school cross country meets aren’t exactly the peak of human masculinity to begin with, the difference between him and the other competitors was marked enough to be noticeable, particularly because he was generally in the lead. This is probably an embellishment of memory, but I feel like I can remember other parents murmuring when he came storming by in the lead, ahead of their sons. I don’t blame them, really. It just seemed like some sort of physical and biological impossibility that his little body could be moving that fast, for that long.

I guess in a lot of ways it seems like even more of an impossibility that his body is still moving that much faster, for that much longer. He ran a touch over sixteen minutes for three miles that first season, about a 5:20 per mile clip. His qualifying time for the marathon was 5:10 pace, for twenty-six point two. His fifteen year-old self wouldn’t be able to keep up with his thirty year-old self for even three miles.

Longevity and specificity. Do anything for long enough and the high points of the past fade into relative mediocrity.

In Psalm 139, King David cries out in praise to the Lord that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I think about that sometimes, this innate coupling of fear and wonder. For the first few days in the tower, it was unnerving to hear those shrieks from the shoreline as kids ran in and out of the shorebreak, playing the game where they try to outrun the waves crashing into the sand. No doubt the sound carried notes of both.

In training, we had a lecture about ocean conditions, part of which dealt with wave formation and how waves are measured. Measuring wave height is not an easy, or even uniform process. While most people measure breaking waves from the front, others (notably the Hawaiians) measure from the back of the breaking wave, which can result in the same wave being described by heights that differ by as much as half. Even two people measuring the same wave in the same way are likely to arrive at different heights. Much of this comes from the fishing tale mentality (“the thing was THIS big”), and so the old saying rings true that really there are only two ways to measure a wave: “you can under estimate, or you can over estimate.”

So our instructor for the day, after establishing the fickleness of obtaining precise wave measurements, offered an alternative method. Seeing as our main concern had less to do with the exact height of a wave crashing onto our beaches, and more to do with how the people swimming in our water would handle the wave, his idea was that waves should be measured in “increments of fear.” To the local kid who learned to swim before he learned to walk, a four foot wave is going to register quite a bit differently on that scale than it will to the kid wading into the water with a drug store boogie board who sees the ocean once a summer on vacation. Our job was to monitor the blips on the scale, and know when to act when the reading reached a certain point. Fear and wonder often look the same.

There is a friendly rivalry between state guards and city guards. Everyone wears red shorts, but because the money comes from two different places, somehow it makes a difference. It’s reason enough to draw a line in the sand, I suppose. Lifeguards aren’t generally known for being short on testosterone.

There’s a third agency that kind of gets brushed aside, in my perception of things anyhow. They are a private company, contracted out by the county. In many ways they are responsible for some of the most hazardous stretches of the county’s shoreline. They wear red shorts too, but it seems maybe theirs are a different hue.

I think maybe it goes back to that idea of longevity. The histories of both state and city lifeguards is populated by legendary watermen, the type of guys sayings about wooden boats and iron men were crafted about. There are guards on both staffs that have been working the beach longer than many of the younger guards have been breathing. And there’s a sort of stability, a sense of permanence that emerges from that sort of longevity. When it’s lacking, present perception suffers. Probably that’s not fair, but it’s reality.

Then again, when it’s time to go, it doesn’t much matter who came before. All there is is fins, buoy, and the person seeking the deep. And the voice that says: Nobody gets to drown in my water today. God willing.

I can remember an anger building in the weeks before a race. An anger and a fear. Anger at the long months of toil and turmoil, and fear that it hadn’t been enough, and then the anger doubling down on itself after that thought. By the time the bows were aligned, it had begun boiling over, and as the flag dropped there was the eruption of it all against the water, against the oars, against the demons dancing on my heart. I never understand how I could feel so small and so large in the same instant.

And after it was over, win or lose, an emptiness. I think sometimes people chase things their entire lives without knowing what they’re running from.

It’s an awful day when you finally get caught.

I was writing about the seasons; which is to say, metaphorically. I’ve never been great with metaphors. How can clumsy words possibly link together those wonders of interrelation we all feel on some level? The mysteries are usually far grander than any symbols we try to hang on them.

It’s like when they had us paint Starry Night in grade school. The masterpiece has long since dried, yet we go on adding our juvenile brushstrokes.

I don’t much like simile either, now that you mention it.

I remember, now, what it was that got me thinking of all this: a man with a kayak, and what I wasn’t sure was an honest question.

He wanted to know if there would be a time later in the day that the waves would be calmer for launching his kayak. My eyes left the water, which is the cardinal sin of lifeguarding, and looked at his face. There wasn’t a hint of humor in it; he appeared to be asking in earnest. My eyes went back to the water and the barely knee high breakers hitting the shore.

Not three days prior the biggest swell I could ever remember arrived, the result of a hurricane off the coast of Mexico. Waves ten to twelve feet high hit beaches that rarely saw waves even half that size. As quickly as it had come it had gone, and that what was left, these harmless pulses tumbling onto the sand, had this man concerned seemed so outrageous by comparison that I wasn’t sure he was serious.

He clearly was, though, so I advised that if he timed his entry he just might be able to make it past the waves, but ultimately if he wasn’t comfortable the best option was to stay on the shore.

He ambled away and I thought back to the lecture on wave measurement. There was a mystery in it all that I couldn’t quite fathom.

Fearfully and wonderfully are we made, and fearfully and wonderfully do we live out our days.

Some truths you can’t escape, and some waves you can’t outrun.