The central coast of California where I live has been cursed and blessed by sunny weather this winter; it has also been blessed and cursed by unusually high waves. The curse of good weather when it should be raining, known as “drought,” is that it may feed into more horrendous forest fires next summer, same as we had last summer. The blessings of sunny weather are obvious. The curse of very high waves is that they cause some damage to infrastructure and that they sometimes claim lives. The blessing of high waves is that surfing is thriving like never before in “Surf City,” Santa Cruz, my town.
On a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon of January, the beach two miles from my house is crowded like in June (not quite as much as in August). It’s largely covered with family clusters. Look at it in context. Children are not allowed to go to school (although they are almost completely immune); many moms who would otherwise work have been laid off from their more or less precarious jobs. Many dads have been laid off too; others “work from home.”
The kids are restless, the sun is shining, the temperature is better than OK; the beach is within the reach of many. (More on this later.) What are we going to do? Let’s spend the middle of the day at the beach, of course.
I should have have been able to predict it because I am a serious beach social scientist. I missed the boat. Santa Cruz was one of the best small towns I knew only seven or eight years ago. Then, the homeless started drifting in and they never left. Some are in the last stages of a life dedication to drugs; others are rationality challenged; a few are both. For the past five years or so, there have been enough of them to affect the quality of life for everyone else. Their presence determines to an extent where one can take one’s children in town. (Sorry, I call them as I see them; no judgment involved.)
Then, the COVID fell upon us from China. In short order, the authorities, including the local powers, found their authoritarian footing, or they got in touch with their own panic. And panic is often a handmaiden to petty authoritarianism. They began prohibiting this, and that, and that public behavior, this and that kind of work, etc.
Santa Cruz is becoming a ghost town, one restaurant closing at a time, one store closing at a time. The movie theaters are shut down, the biggest one forever. The one large bookstore does remain open though. You can still pick up and return books at the public library but either you can’t browse or it’s fiendishly complicated to do so on-line. Besides, one can only read so many hours a day if one is under fifty, so many minutes if under fifteen.
Just from looking around, I assume that many school-age children have taken the opportunities on-line learning offers to become even more adept at using the internet. Such skills come handy in times of extreme idleness. I believe a good many kids are on TikTok and similar on-line alternate worlds six or seven hours a day, some amassing “followers.” (Don’t ask me why I believe this, it’s very personal; I just know.) But although such games are addictive, they too become tiresome and children crave direct social contact anyway. So, eventually, many kids end up at the beach with their parents and with their siblings and their parents or, with adult neighbors and their children.
In point of fact, many of the family clusters on the sand are further grouped into larger ensembles including some ten or fifteen adults and thirty or forty children. I haven’t yet figured out whether they are grouped on the basis of school, church, or just neighborhood. Whatever the case, it’s pretty impressive. No one is wearing a mask.
On weekends, visitors from far afield join those mostly local people on the beach, increasing again the crowding. There are several ways to spot the visitors. Some play loud music- a sure activator of xenophobia; others send their kids to the water with a life jacket on top of their wetsuits. (Not cool.) Some wear masks.
Speaking of wetsuits, a new thing, something I have never seen before, is that dozens of little kids are in wetsuits. This is a rare sight because in normal times, parents tell themselves: Not worth buying the kid a wetsuit; he is going to outgrow it in months.
The calculation has changed because of a virus. The parents are largely unable to spend money on dining out, other shopping opportunities are limited and inconvenient; for the well-heeled, this year, there has been no winter vacation to spend on; for the least well endowed, there are not even school supplies expenditures. I am saying that under current circumstances, unlike in previous years, almost any parents feel that they can afford to buy one or two children’s wetsuits (at about $125 or less each). This changes everything.
More importantly, perhaps, but I won’t dwell on this because I can’t afford to lose half of humanity as potential friends, for the first time in my experience, you see dozens of mature women in wetsuits. I have to be cautious here because, let’s say that the wetsuit as a garment is not all that flattering to the mature female shape.
The beach I have in mind is a few hundred yards around a point from globally famous Steamer Lane where world surf championships are held most winters. The waning rollers of Steamer Lane land on that beach and they are suitable, the farthest ones for intermediate surfers, and the closest, for beginners. So, almost every family cluster on the beach includes one, two, or three surfers.
Learning a new sport is often wonderful; learning it as a family is terrific. Coming out of the water cold but exhilarated and sharing a sandwich with your kids and with your spouse is like a return to a lovely, simpler past most people today have only heard of, if that.
Downbeach some way, three tiny girls in tiny bikinis chase one another in the small waves. Their squeals gladden the heart. A couple of boys nearby are on the wet sand absorbed by a hydrokinetic project. They ignore the girls as is proper. A smart white egret has figured out that humans are not predators. It picks sand crabs right between the feet of children. At least some creatures are enjoying a new freedom and that’s all good (except for the sand crabs).
Surfing, loosely defined, plus the new pleasant, voluntary family closeness around it, has become the first recourse but also the last recourse of many of the locked-down. It must be pretty much irreplaceable for them under the current circumstances of health-based restrictions, and health pretext-based restrictions on ordinary activities, circumstances of forced idleness and, of unnatural family interaction in a closed space. Surfing is the thin pillar around which some people are building a small, fragile edifice of freedom and joy.
If the local health authorities try – as they did last spring – to restrict parking near the beach, I believe all hell will break loose. (And, I am being polite, I was thinking of fans, not fanatics, air circulation devices.) That’s true, although Santa Cruz is largely a “progressive” town. Every material obstacle to parking is one less family group able to have recourse to the last recourse. The real surfers among them, advanced or not, are tough people. They immerse themselves voluntarily for hours in cold water. (Wetsuits don’t protect faces and hands, and the rest of the body, only imperfectly). They deliberately submit themselves, and often their children, to the dangers of breaking surf. And, I don’t even mention sharks, known to frequent the area because we have many sea lions. (The last fatal shark attack was about 18 months ago, a long time ago or yesterday, depending.)
At any rate, the surfers won’t go meekly. They are not likely to submit to orders to stay away from waves that are extremely unlikely transmitters of viruses. If the authorities even attempt to take away this last vestige of personal freedom, the surfers will proclaim and lead a sort of revolution. Also, if I were the authorities, I would think twice before turning draconian because many law enforcement people (and firefighters) are surfers themselves so, the expected instruments of repression would be somewhat unreliable. And no one, but no one hates surfers except other surfers. So, don’t go seeking allies in repression.
Local tyrants – however well meaning you are – don’t even think about it! You don’t want to face the full anger of barefoot families in wetsuits who have been enduring for a year a bunch of largely ineffectual, ill-explained, and often idiotic regulations.