Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I've had writer's block for the past two weeks. Not with the book, thank God, that's still moving forward steadily and rather smoothly. But for the past two weeks I've been wanting to write about my gorgeous little puppy Nalu and unable to do it. To answer the FAQ about her, she is a black pug, her name is a Hawaiian word that means "wave," she will likely grow to be 15-20 pounds, although she's only 3 pounds, 7 ounces at the moment. I can hold her short squat torso with one hand, with her little legs on either side, sometimes running in the air, which I find hilarious.

Although I was prepared to love my little darling, fuss over her, cuddle her, I was not prepared for everyone else in the world to do the same. From little old ladies to small boys, from matrons to my personal favorite, the burly plumbers we met today, Nalu turns everyone into squealing, cooing sweetness, which is delightful to witness. Seeing people love her helps me see the goodness in everyone, the child in everyone, the pure joy that people can emit for a small helpless creature. One woman ran out of her office, another around the corner, just to pet her and fuss over her. Many people have pulled their cars over--Nalu literally stops traffic.

Other surprises about puppyhood include how little I mind picking up her poop. Honestly, it doesn't bother me in the least. I'm pleasantly surprised by the stores of patience I didn't know I had. She can be determined, nippy, crazed, disobedient, and still I'm consistently patient and kind. We had a rough day at the end of week 1, but since then, I've adjusted my expectations (poor Nalu is also the victim of my perfectionism) and things are going much better. "Bless her, change me" is one of my mantras. The other is "calm assertive." That's the attitude Cesar Millan says each owner should have toward their dog. It helps.

Sweet surprises include the excitement of my loved ones, the visits to meet Nalu, the gifts for her, watching her bond with my parents and Carl's parents, meeting lots of neighbors, the support of other dog lovers and owners.

One not-so-sweet surprise is how many people insist on comparing raising a puppy to raising a child. I know that our human minds look everywhere for comparisons, that it's hard-wired in us, and there are some points of similarity, but come on, I'm not starting a college fund for Nalu. She'll be full grown within a year, the hardest part of puppyhood is over quickly, and she can be left home alone for hours at a time without compromising her health or happiness. And though I'm not a parent, I'm pretty sure that none of those things are true for children.

I'm not surprised by how much I love her, but I am surprised by the worry and the guilt. I have flashes of irrational fear of finding her dead in her crate. And if she's alone for more than two hours, I find myself rushing home, anxious to rid myself of the guilt.

This journey with Nalu has just begun, and I'm sure there will be much more to say about it. There's lots more to say right now, which is partly why I was blocked. Getting a puppy is a huge thing for me. I went 32 years without having to be responsible for any other living creature, and now, there is a small animal in my home that relies on me for food, shelter, health care, training, emotional well-being, a creature who cannot be alone for more than a few hours. That's huge for Julie Owsik Ackerman, but I'm getting used to it.

I promise to post pictures soon.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another Little Rincon of My Heart

Carl and I crossed a milestone last week—our first surfari. I hope it’s the first of many, especially after hearing Carl say over and over, “This is the best vacation ever!” We went to Rincon, a small town on the west coast of Puerto Rico, a place that draws world class surfers with waves that can get fifteen to twenty feet high. Think about that. That means you’re standing on a surf board, riding a wave that is more than two or three times as tall as you are. Big.

Now, Carl and I are beginner surfers, and I’m not stupid, so before I booked our trip I made sure there were surf breaks with sandy bottoms and small waves. But as soon as we arrived we drove to the big wave breaks, Escaleras and Marias, neither of which looked terribly scary, though bigger than anything we see in New Jersey. We ate at a spot overlooking the ocean, watched some surfers in the water as the sun set, and I felt equal parts terrified of getting in the water and impatient to do so.

After a failed attempt to go out on our own, we secured the services of Melissa, a surf instructor. She met us at Marias, pulling up in a big black pickup truck with eight surfboards stacked in the back. She personified surfer chic, wearing a cool mismatched bikini and a crocheted black dress coverup with long blond hair, toasty tan skin, and yes, sea blue eyes. She took some time to watch the waves, looking dissatisfied. We peppered her with questions, which she patiently answered with her eyes mostly on the ocean.

“Normally, Maria’s is better for lessons because the rides are longer, and it’s not as crowded as Domes, but today...”

She placed a call, found out that Domes looked better and so we found ourselves at Domes, paddling out with her. Melissa watched the waves and when she saw a good one, she told us to get ready, when to start paddling, then pushed us into the right spot on the wave, shouting “You got it!” once it was time to stand up. The first few waves I stood up, but not for long. She was positive and encouraging, spotting mistakes and helping me to correct them. “You did great on that one,” she said as I got back outside after my first wave. “Next time, make sure you’re looking up. You always want to look in the direction you’re going.”

I wasn’t always able to follow her advice immediately, but I learned to feel what I was doing wrong, and little by little I put a few of her nuggets into practice. By the end of our hour lesson with her, I had the longest ride I’d ever had.

Stoked, we set up a lesson with her for early the next morning, meeting her back at Domes with more confidence and excitement than I’d had for surfing in a long time, maybe ever. We paddled out more quickly, and got into waves right away. I learned how to drop into a wave without my board nosediving, I caught some waves, stood up, had another few great rides, garnered some applause and “Go get it, girl” type encouragement from local surfers, all of which was great.

And then that afternoon I had the moment that made the whole trip worthwhile, the highlight of my surfing career, when all by myself I spotted a wave, turned around, paddled for it, caught it, dropped it, and rode it.

Flush with victory, I paddled for wave after wave, but found it hard to position myself correctly or get my timing right. My frustration and exhaustion grew. I saw Carl paddle out a distance away and watched him make a new friend and have some great rides. After resenting him from afar, I swallowed some pride, some more sea water and paddled over to where he was. His new friend was a sweet 22 year old, handsome like a Disney prince, who said, “Hey Julie, I’m Eric, why don’t you hang out with us?” Though we had some laughs, I didn’t catch any more waves that day, but I held on to my earlier breakthrough.

The next morning I woke up feeling lousy, but the town was buzzing about a swell arriving that day, and we had arranged to meet Melissa that morning, so I bikinied up, gave myself a pep talk and headed to the beach.

For Rincon, the surf was so-so; for me it was huge. The waves were 6-8 feet, so if you’re on your board, the wave is over your head. Just standing on shore I was scared. My discomfort increased when I found out Eric was taking us out that morning instead of Melissa. Sweet as he was, I had a feeling that he was a natural, and naturals often don’t understand the limitations of mere mortals. But I pushed my reservations aside and paddled out.

My fear/adrenaline exploded as I saw a giant wave hurtling toward us. “Paddle, Julie, paddle!” Eric said, easily speeding up his arms. I moved as quickly as I could, but when I saw I wouldn’t make it over the wave, I rolled over, holding my board above me, hoping it would wash over me, but unfortunately, the wave ripped the board out of my hands and I went tumbling after, my arms curled over my head to protect it from the board and the coral reefs. When I emerged, gasping for air I saw the next wave bearing down and dove underwater, my right leg yanked by the force of the water trying to drag my board to shore. I came up, tugged the board back to me, kicked and strained my way back on top, only to be knocked off by the third wave. I waited for the fourth one to pass before trying to get back up. I was beaten down, discouraged, disoriented.

Eric came back toward me, his arms effortlessly, playfully moving his board forward. “You okay?” he asked. I nodded. “Okay, we gotta get out before the next set, come on.” I paddled my little heart out, gasping for air, arms burning. “I’ll give you a little boost” Eric called before pushing me from behind, catching up to me, then pushing again. “Come on, you can do it!” I paddled paddled paddled, arm over arm. After all that, I had to at least get past the break. At least that. After what felt like forty minutes, but probably was only ten, I finally got outside, on the verge of physical and emotional collapse, but beyond the break.

Ten seconds later Eric said, “Hey Julie, here comes a good one, you want it?” I didn’t even have the breath to answer him, let alone catch the biggest wave of my life. Carl went for it, and got destroyed. The mountains of water were rising under me and falling away into thunderous foam, my dread and fear growing with each one.

Finally I decided I’d try to catch one wave. After one, I could go back to shore, but I had made it outside, so I owed it to myself to try. I told Eric and Carl my plan, turned around and steeled myself. Eric saw one coming, I started paddling, he pushed me and I immediately knew my timing was off. The water swallowed me up, tumbled me around, and spit me out. I was done.

I paddled back in fighting back tears. As I climbed over the reef out of the water, I tucked my feelings away, determined not to cry at the beach and plopped down on a surfboard next to Melissa. “I’m trying to not be mad that I’m the one who took up surfing and Carl is better and braver than me already,” I said. Melissa nodded. “My younger brother doesn’t teach surfing, and he’s a better surfer than me,” she said.

Commiserating helped soothe my wounded ego. So did a break from the beach, and speaking Spanish, something I do very well. Maybe best of all was returning that night to watch other surfers in the big waves. I don’t know where those people came from, but they surfed as well as the people we watch in movies. They dropped into the waves, jumped up and skimmed across the top, and popped 360 aerials. Sitting on the sand with the sun setting into the water I realized that those were waves for experts, not for people who had just started last summer.

I learned a lot on the surfari. I learned it’s good to admit when you need help, because you might get some. I learned that I am still a beginner, and I can’t expect myself to keep up with experts. I learned that even great surfers miss waves, misjudge, get caught inside, wipeout. I learned that though it’s good to try, it’s also good to admit when something is too much. Finally, I learned that as hard as surfing is for me, as much as it brings up, being in the water still beats being on the beach.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Swimming Lessons

As a kid, I was a natural little swimmer, rising through the ranks of the YMCA swim program from guppy to minnow to fish to flying fish. After a twenty-five year hiatus, I went back for more swimming lessons last winter, hoping to improve my surfing. Little did I know I was in for one-on-one classes with Edmund, an Albanian champion swimmer. He was a big bear of a man—over six feet tall, barrel-chested, hairy front and back with an ease in the water unlike any person I’d ever met.

Edmund was an exacting teacher with high standards, and boy did he understand swimming. He had watched me swim half a length of the pool freestyle when he stopped me and said, “Of course you can’t breathe when you swim, you’re turning your head not your body.” And I felt that clunk of recognition, like when I hear an on-target critique of my writing—like of course, that’s what I’m doing wrong. He taught me how to stretch, how to use gravity, how to position my head to look down and not ahead, how to use my arms to move myself forward, not just my hands.

My freestyle stroke and breaststroke gradually improved, but my backstroke was hopeless. I understood the arm motion of the backstroke, which we practiced standing up in the shallow end, but I couldn’t get the floating or the kicking. I actually went the wrong way when floating on my back and just kicking. “It would be better if you just used your arms,” he said, not quite with disdain, just as a fact.

He gave me some exercises to do to fix it, which I tried, but when the end of our time together arrived my backstroke was still abominable. I continued swimming at the local high school pool, doing mostly freestyle and breast strokes, throwing in a few laps of backstroke when I had a lane to myself, suffering and tense, water going up my nose, but determined to keep trying.

Over the summer I traded surfing for swimming and when I got back in the pool this winter and revisited the backstroke, I was surprised to note that something had shifted. I didn’t dread it as much, and after awhile I began to look forward to it, because I could feel progress, and I love feeling progress.

Then last week while reading a book about Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian surfing icon and champion swimmer, I came across this advice of his about swimming: “Relax. Let your muscles be soft. When they tighten up from fear, you are as heavy as a rock and you sink.” I felt another clunk of recognition. I was so tense during the back float—so afraid of getting water up my nose or hitting my head on the wall, of sinking, of flailing, of looking bad—no wonder it was so hard.

The next day I took Duke’s words into the pool with me. I focused on relaxing while I swam—which isn’t easy by the way. I would relax, but then need my muscles to move forward. So I tried relaxing my core, just using my arms and legs. Then I tried relaxing whatever muscles I wasn’t using. And something awesome happened—I enjoyed my swim more than I ever had before. It felt better, more natural, less forced.

As I swam I thought about the balance between relaxing and engaging, and that sometimes what is needed isn’t more effort, but less. Less effort feels to me like letting go, trusting that I will be okay. I’m starting to do this in my life outside the pool too. The more I do it, the more I see it works. The more it works, the more I do it.

Edmund would be so proud. Maybe I’ll go back next winter to learn the butterfly.