Friday, August 17, 2012

During my 24-hour layover in Honolulu, I normally surf two spots. I go to Queens in the evening, surf until after sunset, walk back to the hotel, hang my board shorts and rash guard up to dry on the balcony, eat in my room, and hit the sack. Early. Because in the morning, I go to Publics.

Falling asleep, however, is often a challenge because during my evening session at Queens, I can clearly see what's happening over at Publics. If there's any swell at all, Publics will be firing and guys will be getting rides on emerald-green two-foot peelers, billowy and fast in the afternoon trade winds. Crawling into bed, my mind turns the little peelers I actually saw into the double-overhead freight train lefts I hope to see in the morning, and soon I am sure this is how it will be, despite the tepid surf forecast on my smartphone and despite years of disappointment with overnight swell changes. Surfers are all optimists. "You should have been here yesterday" becomes "There will be waves tomorrow" and no amount of practical experience or wave prediction technology can change that. It's like my faith in the Second Coming; though long delayed, the signs are there, and I want my heart to be right because no one really knows when it will happen. But Jesus will come.

There will be waves.

Review: Bourne Legacy

I've read the Ludlum books and enjoyed immensely the three movies leading up to this one, so I was skeptical about a Bourne movie that didn't actually feature the title character. On the other hand, Jeremy Renner has been good in everything I've seen him in, so I gave it a go.

Renner fills Matt Damon's shoes and then some. This thriller dovetails nicely with the final Damon film. We don't see him in person, but Jason Bourne has arrived in America and set in motion the collapse of a malevolent spy ring involving the CIA and various covert agencies run by bigwigs and crooked pols. Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross is, like Bourne, a specialized assassin who's had his DNA played with by Big Pharma. The difference is that unlike Jason Bourne, who spent three feature-length films trying to figure out who he was and why he possessed those marvelous mixed martial arts skills, Aaron Cross knows exactly who he is and remembers everything, including the bomb blast that almost killed him as a soldier in Iraq. The rest of the world, including his family, thinks he did die in Iraq. The Agency, in the person of Edward Norton, Jr., uses his battlefield "demise" to recruit him into black ops and it's been one world hotspot after another ever since.

So that's the secret Aaron Cross must guard, and he knows he will never really be able to go home. Rachel Weisz plays Dr. Marta Spearing, a biomedical researcher who develops and administers the gene-altering drugs that turn Aaron and his cohorts into superhuman specimens of strength, stamina and mental acuity. In an interesting twist, however, she has no idea what her patients do when they leave her lab. She doesn't know, for example, that Patient #5 (aka Aaron Cross) is a hired trigger working for the government. So it comes as a shock to her when the Agency's puppet masters issue orders to  eliminate everyone associated with the program, from the super-agents at the top all the way to down to the lowliest lab tech and, of course, Aaron Cross and Dr. Spearing.

How Dr. Spearing and super-assassin Aaron Cross come to be astride a dirt bike careening through the back streets of Manila pursued by a super-duper-assassin, I will leave to your viewing pleasure. (Hint: it has to do with the fact that to keep his skills intact, Cross needs a steady supply of the drugs Dr. Spearing doles out—and he's running out of drugs!) The movie builds to its thrilling climax carefully and logically and in no big hurry—the running time is over two hours—and the director makes a dramatic improvement in one element of the story that figures prominently in every spy-gone-rogue movie you've ever seen: the war-room scene with monitors and operatives at chirping computer screens and someone in charge yelling "Get me eyes on Bourne! C'mon people, this is a Level Five national emergency!" and voila, we're able to follow the bad-good-guy and his girlfriend through every train station and hotel lobby from Berlin to Bangkok. This patent absurdity bothers me almost as much as the scrolling date-time-location stamp in the lower right corner of the screen with each change in location. The technology to track people by video, by credit card usage, by cab fare, certainly exists, but piecing together random sightings and snippets of video into a trail you could follow would take hundreds of specialists and hours of time in one of those war rooms. And this movie acknowledges that fact in a way that makes the ensuing chase plausible, fascinating and believable.

Another element I found fascinating was the story's horrifying use of Predator drones to knock off inconvenient agents. The tiny aircraft are (mostly) silent, deadly, reliable in any weather—and operated by bored technicians in offices just outside the Beltway somewhere. One flight plan delivers supplies to operatives living next to a frozen lake in Alaska. Another flight plan launches Hellfire missiles on those same operatives, all with the click of a mouse. Amazing, and true-to-life.

Four stars for verisimilitude in a genre that too often stretches the bounds of credibility. Mild language, no sex, but people dying in agonizing ways. One drawn-out scene of an office-worker shooting his colleagues was especially hard to watch because of what seems to be in the news every day. But I'll watch this one again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Peculiar Politics of a Popular Surf Spot

Any time I surf at Queens and don't get yelled at is a good surf session.

Queens is the spot right in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue on Waikiki. Look at an old black and white post card of people surfing in Hawaii in the '30's and '40's, with Diamond Head in the background, and you're looking at Queens. Anyone who visits Honolulu and wants to try his hand at surfing, tries it at Queens. It is the most crowded single wave in the surfing universe with the possible exception of Malibu on a good day.
It still looks and feels just like this.

 Malibu doesn't have very many good days, in spite of what you've heard, but the waves at Queens are fun and rideable almost every day, and some days, with the right southwest swell and a medium tide, Queens is fantastic. It breaks both left and right—better to the right, but you can go either way—and there's an outside peak and an inside peak called Baby Queens and even with 40 surfers in the water, everyone can catch some waves.

Because Queens is directly in front of our layover hotels in Waikiki, it was the first spot I surfed when I started coming out here regularly two years ago. My first time there, I paddled out on a rented fun-board on a 4-foot day and within 20 minutes I had caught arguably two of the best waves in my life, right there in front of the hotels and the traffic and a city of 350,000 people. Pretty soon I was surfing Queens once or twice a week on an Infinity longboard I bought for sixty bucks from a Swiss med student leaving the island. And I began my education in the peculiar politics of surfing in the islands.

The crowd at Queens.
The customs and courtesies of surfing I learned growing up in Southern California don't apply here, even at a spot as overrun with tourists and beginners as Queens. Generally, the surfer closest to the peak has priority; you don't take off on a wave in front of another surfer already established on that wave; if a wave breaks both ways, you call your intended direction of travel, "Coming right!" or "Left, left!" to ward off interlopers. The young hotdog and the oldtimer on his monster longboard all observe the same rules, and it works pretty good.

Here in the islands it work s a little differently. Even on a big, wide-shouldered wave like Queens, the rules favor not the surfer who manages to hustle himself into the best takeoff spot (more on that in a minute) but rather an intricate hierarchy of locals, locals' girlfriends, children of locals, brown people generally, and accepted haoles who've been around a really, really long time. A fair-skinned visitor on a borrowed board fits into none of these categories, and must content himself with whatever smaller waves happen to pop up in front of him while no one is looking, and there aren't very many of those. To do otherwise, as I soon learned, is to invite everything from a mild scolding to a wrathful lambasting in a language whose words you do not understand but whose meaning is clear.

It is futile to protest or attempt to explain yourself. You might think you could just ask how the system works; the resulting lecture on "respect" will not clear things up. You're going to have to learn for yourself, as I did, that haoles are expected to yield to stand-up paddlers, all girls, keiki (children), Hawaiian locals, non-Hawaiian locals, and anyone with an acre of tattoos on his back. This means fewer waves on a crowded afternoon, but at least you'll get out of the water with your dignity intact.

Reflecting back on my upbringing in Southern California, I now realize my surfing elders did me no favors by teaching me the habit of always jostling and hustling and maneuvering for the best spot on the next wave. A scarcity mentality prevails in California because really, really good waves are, once again, rarer than a smog-free day in LA, and the conditions that created this morning's overhead west swell with offshore winds and hollow peaks might not repeat itself for weeks or months! You gotta get every wave you can because, son, it might be awhile! Thus the need to snake and parry and weasel your way into position on every single wave and the ensuing bad feelings when someone drops in on your perfect setup for that glassy inside section.

Here I must admit the Hawaiians have developed a healthier attitude towards the whole enterprise, but they can afford to because, out here, there's always good surf somewhere, and if not today, then tomorrow; by Friday at the latest. The appearance of wanting too many waves, of striving a little too hard, the scheming subtle shifts in position that let you score a few extra waves—that is all highly frowned upon at Queens and every other spot I've surfed so far, and people will definitely talk to you about it. And they'll talk about you, within earshot, to all of their friends: "Dis guy, what he think, he gotta get every wave? What you think, you gotta catch every wave? Relax!" And you look at them blankly, trying to figure out what you did wrong this time. You think, there was no one else on that wave. I wasn't in anyone's way—this doesn't make sense! What'd I do?

You paddled back out and right into another wave. You hustled—you caught your share and then a few more than your share. You strove. You didn't know it, but you were making a spectacle of yourself, a fair-skinned haole spectacle. If everyone came here and did that, it would be just like California, and that, that is what you are to understand when they talk to you about respect. This is someplace else, a special place, and these unbelievably good, consistent fun waves are God's special gift to these islands and these surfers, who have no choice but to share them, but on certain terms and conditions: Wait your turn. Let others go first. Take your time. Enjoy the sunset, feel that wind, look at what's beneath your feet in this clear, perfect water. Our great-grandparents, they would say if you really gave them your full attention, surfed here on alaia and poipo and this is our heritage and our home and you're a guest here—an uninvited one at that. So chill!

I have come to believe that the only thing a Hawaiian surfer enjoys more than a great ride on a perfect wave, is watching his best friend have a great ride on a perfect wave. Since I've learned to adopt that outlook, I paddle out almost anywhere I want and I don't get yelled at. I've even made some friends! And I still get a lot of really, really good waves.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Dawn Patrol at Publics

It's tough to find an uncrowded place to surf near an island city of 375,000 residents, all of whom seem to have a longboard in the sideyard. But if you're willing to get up early and paddle out through a shallow reef in the dark, you can capture 30 minutes of alone time even in Honolulu's dense urban-surf environment. The other day I caught four or five uncontested waves at Public's as dawn crept over Diamond Head, with nothing but reef fishes and a solitary sea turtle to keep me company. Or so I thought.

As daylight came and made the pass through the inside reef a little more discernible, Jessie paddled out and joined me. Jessie's a big Hawaiian on a big longboard who sits outside the normal lineup and waits for the clean-up sets. He paddles out in an upright seated position with his legs in front of him. We've never  been introduced, but I know his name because on crowded days the other surfers yell "Go Jessie!" when he lines up that big noserider for a long ride to the jetty. Jessie nodded to me as he paddled by.

Within an hour there were five or six of us out there: Todd on the 6'8" epoxy fish identical to mine, a kid on a boogie board, and the kid's friend on a thruster. There was also an old guy I see all the time who rides a homemade paipo, which is an authentic wooden bodyboard like the Hawaiians rode in "pre-contact" days. The rest of the crew is not there: Allen, Lance, Ken, Robin, others.

On an average day, Publics is cleaner and more consistent than the best days at my home break back in LA. On good days, at a medium tide with a solid 5-foot south swell and light trade winds, Public's is worthy of a surf magazine centerfold.

Jessie caught a wave in to the reef and as he paddled back out, he casually mentioned that he'd seen a 6-foot tiger shark in shallow water near the reef. Later on I passed this information to Todd, who said sharks were common at all the south shore reefs. One time, Todd said, he'd taken a ride on the tourist submarine off Waikiki and was amazed at the population of big ulua, ono, and sharks just a few hundred yards offshore. Sure enough, from his perch outside the lineup, Jessie called out that he'd seen the same small shark again, jetting across the sandy bottom below him.

No one seemed disturbed by this second sighting. I wondered if it should bother me. I've always reasoned that sharks and other menaces probably loiter unseen around the shorelines where I surf all the time. Attacks on surfers (outside of Australia, anyway) are so rare that the chances of becoming a victim are extremely remote. I figured, "If these Hawaiians I'm surfing with become nervous, I'll take that as an indication that it's time to leave." Aside from an occasional glance below their feet, Todd and Jessie did not seem concerned. We kept surfing.

Michael, a surfer and one of the valets at the hotel, told me that afternoon that there is a well-known local tiger shark, at least 12 feet long, that regularly cruises between Diamond Head and Waikiki. That's a big shark. A shark that big bites you, it might leave a scar. Michael shared his philosophy: "When we go in the ocean, we enter the food chain." Yes, I said, and we're not necessarily at the top of that food chain. Michael laughed, but suggested that tastier fare was much easier for the average shark to come by. A reassuring thought: they'll leave us alone, because we taste bad and we're probably not worth the trouble.

I'll keep all this in mind when next I paddle out through the reef at Public's in the dark for some alone time.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Empty Nest

Yesterday around noon I delivered my two daughters to Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico, where they will spend the summer on the staff. Holly will work in the Tooth of Time trading post selling outdoor gear and dispensing advice on its use to thousands of Boy Scouts, Venturers and leaders who come to Philmont every year for extended back-country treks.

Holly and Emma arrive for staff training at
Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
Emma, on the other hand, has been selected to work as part of a training crew in Sealy Canyon, a camp so remote from headquarters that it's technically not even inside the boundaries of the 137,000-acre Scout Ranch. There she will reside for nine days at a time, in a tent, without power or access to the outside world, teaching wilderness First Aid and search & rescue techniques to visiting crews. She's the only girl on her team (besides the team leader).

Tori and I are back home in Texas—on our own again for the first time in over twenty-five years! I am proud of all my daughters, and sad to lose their company. I look forward to a quieter home, but I already miss the commotion and music and laughter. I can't wait to share in their lives as they finish school and start families of their own (my oldest is already well down the road in that department, married to a law student and with two kids of her own), but I find myself wishing I has one more day with them all.

Tori and I had fish tacos for dinner...and finished the dishes in under 3 minutes! Our nest is empty. We miss our girls...but this is going to be fun!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Third Guy

Long-haul flights across continents and oceans require at least three pilots due to the extended duration of each flight. The captain sits in the left seat and is the pilot-in-command. He makes all the decisions and most of the money. The first officer is the copilot and he sits in the right seat. The “international officer,” a made-up term for a made-up position, is the third guy and he sits in the jump seat behind the captain and first officer. His job is to spell the primary pilots, in turn, so they can each take a two-hour nap back in First Class.
I’m that third guy.
The airlines are one of the last bastions of a unionized workforce in America, and every pilot’s position is determined by strict seniority. The captain didn’t become the captain through dint of hard work, specialized flying skills, or an accident-free flight record. He became captain because he’d been on the property long enough to bid, and hold, a captain’s position when it became available at his pilot base. Someday, when his younger copilot has been around long enough, he’ll become a captain, too. Merit has nothing to do with it; you don’t “earn” a set of captain’s wings, you accrue longevity and the job comes to you in due course. You become the first guy.
So the captain has been around longer than the copilot, and the copilot has probably been around longer than the “international officer.” And while this is not a merit-based system, it does tend to guarantee that the guy in charge has more experience, and is therefore theoretically the fittest for command. The captain makes all the decisions, and bears the final responsibility for the safe outcome of any flight, no matter what. When things don’t go according to plan, it is the captain’s job to maintain control of the aircraft, analyze the situation, and take appropriate action to safely land the plane. He delegates tasks to his copilots and relies on the flight attendants to maintain order and calm in the back, but in his experienced hands, and upon his well-paid judgement, rest the lives of all his crew and his passengers.
The second guy, the first officer or copilot, sits in the right seat behind a set of flight controls and instruments that is identical in every way to the captain’s. If the captain flies the outbound leg, the first officer handles the radios and reads the checklists. On the reverse leg, they’ll switch roles: the captain will make the radio calls while the copilot flies the airplane. So what does the third guy do?
The third guy dons a bright yellow safety vest and takes his flashlight and keys outside to perform an inspection known as the “walk-around” prior to every flight. This puts him in the weather, fair or foul, and it might get him dirty, since an airplane on the outside is a greasy, grimy, noisy, hot, hazardous thing. The third guy deals with the “ramp rats,” including crew chiefs, fuelers, loaders, maintainers, and the man with the worst job in aviation—the guy who dumps the lavatories. They hand him slips of paper confirming that this much potable water was pumped and that many thousand pounds of fuel were loaded and some of the cargo is radioactive (watch bezels?) and some of the cargo is living (show roosters, honeybees, terriers, tropical fish) and didn't get loaded with the radioactive stuff. Any detail that might cause the captain or the copilot to break a sweat or discomfit themselves in any way, belongs to the third guy, the “international officer.” Me.

The view from my seat. That's the captain on the left.
The copilot is on the right. I'm the third guy.
International Officer is a lot of syllables considering what the third guy actually does, and aviators at some airlines have shortened it to “IO.” At my airline, this position is also called the “First Officer B,” or FB, which is how it appears on the monthly bid sheets. FB has in turn given way to colorful monikers like First Break (because the FB always gets the first and least desirable rest break) or, more commonly, Food Boy (because the FB eats a lot of First Class meals).
I am the Food Boy.
The humble third seat.
When Boeing built the
767, they planned for
a flight engineer to
occupy this seat.
Shortly after takeoff the on-board printer issues an updated flight plan with every point along our route of flight, and next to each point is an estimated arrival time and fuel prediction. We check this at each way point to verify that the flight is on schedule and burning the expected amount of fuel en route. To this flight plan I add notations that tell each pilot when his rest break begins and ends. West-bound flights to Hawaii normally generate breaks lasting about two hours and thirty minutes apiece, plus 30 minutes or so at the end of the flight to allow everyone to get back in the cockpit and ready for the descent, approach and landing.
For a variety of reasons the middle break provides the most rejuvenating sleep, so whoever is flying the airplane (captain or copilot) usually takes this rest period. The third break is almost as restful, so the pilot-not-flying takes this one. The first break, twenty minutes after takeoff, during which passengers are chatting noisily and the flight attendants are rattling dishes in the galley and banging through the aisles with serving carts and the captain is making his dignified announcement over the speakers and the sun is beaming into the cabin—an environment, in other words, in which restful sleep is virtually impossible—this is the break given to the FB. First break. My break.
Like a child getting ready for bed, I have a routine for my rest break that makes me drowsy no matter how difficult I find it to actually fall or stay asleep. I unfold the big grey First Class blanket in my lap and raise a small divider between me and the neighbor. I pull an extra pair of socks on and put plugs in my ears. I slip an eye shade around my head and recline the electric seat to the “Zzzzz” position, rest my head on the pillow, pull the shade over my eyes, and tuck my arms under the blanket. At night, I’m usually sound asleep within 5 minutes. During the daytime, I may lay there for an entire 150-minute break and never fall asleep. Either way, the sounds and sensations in a crowded passenger cabin often conspire to chase sleep away.
Three background sounds will always cut through the earplugs and keep me awake: 1) infants wailing in any section of the airplane, 2) chatting women with a certain timbre to their conversational voice, and 3) the repeated shuffling, cutting, and stacking of a deck of Hoyle playing cards on a passenger’s tray table. This third distraction happens more often than you’d think. Otherwise, the background babble of a busy cabin during the meal service actually lulls me to sleep. I wake up when the passenger behind me slams his tray table into the stowed position; it jars the entire seat. Likewise, when the flight attendants slam any of the multitude of doors, cabinets, sliding tables, latches, chillers, ovens, or coffee pots in the First Class galley, which my seat adjoins, it startles me out of the deepest sleep. Bright ambient light is filtered by my eye shades, and I can handle it; flashing, jarring images from a movie (or from the moving map, which the FA’s leave on all night if you don’t remind them) on the bulkhead-mounted video screen above my seat penetrate the mask and prevent me from sleeping.
More than once, the passenger next to me has knocked a full glass of wine or beer onto me while I slept. The odor of baked salmon over buttery risotto, fresh from the oven and delivered to a hungry seatmate, makes it hard to sleep. Sometimes the thing that keeps me awake is my own fault: I’ve had too much water or soda to drink and I have to get up in the middle of my break and go to the bathroom.
And then there’s the seat itself. The company installed these new First Class “lay-flat” seats to a lot of fanfare several years ago. Whoever approved them evidently sat in a prototype for about 90 seconds before giving the go-ahead. There is no position in which these seats can be said to be comfortable for more than a few minutes, much less for the duration of an 8- to 11-hour flight. The “Zzzzz” mode, which is the advertised “lay-flat” position, is about as flat as your dentist’s chair. In this position the jointed mattress tilts down towards your feet, creating the feeling that you are sliding off the seat onto the floor. Your legs are forced into an narrow opening in the wall or under the seat in front of you, and the armrests squeeze you from both sides. An MRI tunnel feels spacious by comparison. If your neighbor moves, you move. If your neighbor snores—forget about it.
My break ends halfway across the Pacific Ocean. Dinner is over, the movie has ended, and the scene around me is one of battle fatigue, not peaceful slumber. As I survey the darkened cabin full of snoring, contorted bodies twisted up in blankets in their “lay-flat” seats, for which they paid thousands of dollars apiece, I suspect these people will wake up kinked and irritable. I feel a little out of sorts, too, as I make my way back to the cockpit. “How’d you sleep?” the captain asks cheerfully. “Not bad, not bad...,” which in pilot-speak means not at all. It’s his turn for a rest, and I take my place in his seat. The copilot in his own seat is lost in thought, nursing a cup of black coffee. We converse a little, listen to voices on the radio, pilots in other airplanes, somewhere over the dark Pacific.
I rub my eyes and stare past the instruments in the dim glow of the dome light, into the inky black sky with its millions of stars. Twenty-two hundred miles to go. A long, sleepless night lies ahead. I lost the battle to fall asleep; now begins the battle to stay awake. I am the third guy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tagged: Four x Four

This is in answer to a tag from Caroline May:

Four Places I Go:
Kincaid's Grocery (Fort Worth's best cheeseburgers...for now!)
Waikiki Beach
QuikTrip (cheap gas, courteous clerks, caffeine-free Diet Coke)

Four Favorite Smells:
The insides of surf shops and bike stores
Tori's cinnamon rolls
Old barns - cow stalls, etc.
Smoke from distant autumn fires

Four Favorite TV Shows or Movies:
Hawaii Five-O (the original with Jack Lord)
The Office
Almost anything with Steve McQueen
Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee version)

Four Recommendations:
Drink more water
By one-owner cars with under 100,000 miles
Dave Ramsey, so you can live like no one else