Predicting the Motion of the Sea
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Once upon a time, anyone could be a prophet. It was so easy. We all knew the future would bring the spread of democracy, the retreat of religion, the surge of prices, the extension of freeways, and the fulfillment of extraordinary ambition. It seemed…inevitable.
Recently, of course, the future has been rolling in like the unruly waves of a gray and troubled ocean. One week winning a war and the next losing the peace. One day a nation our friend and the next our enemy. One day a campaign of rumors, and the next a glimmer of truth. Up and down. Bright foam and green trough. One minute our happiness up 900 points, and the next down 700.
Lately, I notice that even the professional prophets have given up on prophecy. The wise and quotable people on TV and blogs have been wrong so many times, that even the windiest pundits don't offer predictions anymore, only these…running commentaries, these useless minute-to-minute reactions. Only, "Oh look, how awful!"
Even the candidates say they're incapable of looking past the next wave darkening the horizon. And the other day I thought: "Hey, if we're all now lost at sea, maybe I shouldn't be asking pundits or politicians for advice on predicting the waves of the future… maybe I should be asking a surfer."
So I went to my friend Steve, who lives in Santa Monica and is a longtime surfer, and I asked him how, precisely, he predicts a curl. Steve shrugged: "Over time, you just get a feel for it," he said. "You know which swell is going to develop and which will fail, which you can crest, which you should duck and which you should ride. It's nothing you can explain. There's no, like, rule you could write down. You just learn the motion of the sea."
And I thought, "Okay, the prophetic vision of the surfer extends at best 10 or 15 minutes into a dangerous future—but these days, maybe that's not so bad. And maybe it just takes…practice."
Which explains why, last week, the Urban Man put away punditry and drove down to the beach near Ocean Park. I figured I'd start training to really deal with the new world. I wasn't ready to surf, but I do own one of those little boogie boards.
In the parking lot, I ignored the ragged woman rolling her shopping cart and speaking prophecy to the gulls. Neither did I consult the big, sun-bleached goombah with the scraggled beard, though he looked like a Biblical figure, and had painted verses on the tank of his motorcycle.
Once out on the sand, I saw that the sky was empty of omens, but like our present history, significant waves were crashing. And yes, when the first chill hit me, I felt a little surge of joy and fear. I mean, here at last was the real thing—not the abstract narrative of finance or politics, but the ocean itself, the original chaotic story that just keeps arriving at the shore, whether you want it to or not.
For a time I breasted the whitewater, one shock after another, hoping to show some prowess or control—but the surf was too big even to push my little board out past the drop. I tried to duck it under the foam or catch a curl, but ever and again, the crest came before it should, or passed me by or threw me down. Soon my mouth filled with salt, and my eyes filled with sand.
Still, every time I surfaced, I thought: if surfers can learn to read coming waves and contradictory currents, so can the Urban Man. I just have to get used to living out in the break, and if I keep staring at the horizon, I'm sure I too can learn to predict the motion of the sea.
Copyright (c) 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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