Pablo’s Rules of Roadtrip Writing, Take One

Describe one event. Just one.

Here’s the problem: I keep starting on these posts of interesting weekends I’ve had. I start at the beginning, and by the time I’ve gotten to the part where I’ve eaten breakfast and tied my shoes, I’m three pages into it and out of steam. Extrapolating to the time at which we hit the point I’m trying to illustrate, we’d have to go through 35 pages together.

I know, I know – Proust took that many pages to say “I had trouble going to sleep”, and seven full volumes of dense prose to tell us that he liked cookies. But I’m no Proust. And unlike Dickens, who could weave his intricate little pearls of character study into a grand narrative, I’m lucky to get one lump of vaguely shiny text out a time. And it’s not going anywhere.

Still on my desk from two weeks ago is the already-burgeoning writeup of our little family surf lesson. Five pages, and we’ve just finished putting on our wetsuits. Getting to the point where Andy’s stranded in the impact zone, swearing like a sailor between gulps of air as waves crash down on her? At five pages a day, we’re not going to get to that until she’s ready for college (or the Pro Surf tour).

So I’ve got to stop trying to tell the whole story, and just get to the point. Maybe step back a minute or two, like to the point where the Bob the instructor (let’s call him “Bob”) told her to head left, toward the wall of jagged rocks, while he went back to fetch her brother. Maybe just a faint shade of earlier events too – the point where I emphasized to Bob that, while in the long run I wanted them to learn to surf, my only goal for the day was for them to have fun in the water. And a few minutes after that, as Andy, bare feet cut up from stumbling over submerged rocks was exhorted “Hey – you wanna surf? You’ve gotta be prepared to suffer a little!” Yeah – that sets the stage enough.

Anyhow – the mood was already a little foul. Jem was also getting roughed up a bit too, but he shares my gift of being generally oblivious, so it’s not clear he was noticing his predicament, nor would he unless it got to the point of putting him in the hospital.

In this particular case, his gift put him in good stead in another way. When Bob had steered us left, he headed off in a direction that could more accurately be described as “right”. Which was the very direction Bob decided to steer us to get out of the mess he’d guided me and Andy into. At this point, the steering task had taken on some additional components, like reuniting Andy with her surfboard, orienting it into the waves, and getting her head above water long enough to get more out of her mouth than creatively-constructed, if brief invectives against the waves.

Somehow we, or rather, Bob, half-steered, half-towed her out of the impact zone and back to shore, waterlogged but surprisingly little worse for the wear. We staggered back to the car, stripped off our gear and handed our boards back, while Bob avoided making eye contact and busied himself with other students until we drove off.

Wrapped in towels and drying in the warm back seat of the car, I didn’t need to look at at the kids to know that I owed them big for dragging them out on this little “hey – it’ll be fun!” adventure. It took chocolate milk, two orders of chocolate chip pancakes and nearly a pound of bacon before they reckoned that we might – just might – be about even. Oh, and I owed them a trip to Hawaii.

But that was the day in a nutshell. And I think I can describe it, albeit imperfectly, if I just concentrate on that one moment when Andy came up for air the third time. She shook her head side to side to clear the hair and bits of sea gunk from her eyes. She’d been tumbled twice, and was desperate to get her bearings before the next breaker rolled in. Spinning in place to face the sea, she took a deep breath and looked up just in time to see the crest of the oncoming wave above, just now curling to fold and crash down at the very spot she was floating. I was maybe twenty feet away, but there wasn’t a thing I could do. Then, just before the wave slammed down in a thunderclap, I heard her voice. It wasn’t not one of fear or desperation – it was resignation. Mind you, not defeat – no, none of that. It was the Indiana Jones I-thought-you-said-there-were-only-five-tanks kind of resignation, where you were really hoping you were done with this particular punishment for a while. She looked up, and her message was concise and to the point: “Oh shit. Again?” And then the wave came.

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