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It’d been a nice January for surf and I was trying to maximize my time in the water before the baby’s arrival. When I checked the sandbar at the end of the street on Saturday morning, it looked solid. Glancing at my phone, the report said it was bad—but, to my eyes, the wind was down and there was a little swell.
I grabbed my board and biked back out to join the rest of the guys from the neighborhood. The wind held off for way longer than I expected, and we had it pretty perfect, all to ourselves.
I came home and just as I was about to open the garage door, still dripping in my wetsuit, Alexis opened it before me. She looked frustrated. Eight months pregnant—in the middle of the pandemic, with her job as a nurse practitioner—she clearly wasn’t enjoying a restful morning, like I’d hoped she was.
“They’re not giving me any more time for maternity leave,” she said.
“Because I’m a contractor. And they’re already scheduling patients for me to see two weeks after the due date.”
“Okay, that’s not happening.”
“But it is. I just got the schedule and I’m on it.”
I didn’t know what to do. I thought we’d already figured this out with her employers. But there was a limited number of NPs in our county—and barely enough to cover all the shifts as it was.
I got cleaned up and collapsed on the couch next to her.
Alexis grabbed the remote and searched for some stand-up comedy to watch. She settled on Mike Birbiglia’s special, The New One. It started with a bit about the role of a couch in a family’s life, which felt especially poignant as we sank deeper into our shitty cushions after another long pandemic week, with its strange passage/non-passage of time.
So much uncertainty. We knew the due date was in a month, but there was still a lot we didn’t know. We weren’t yet aware of the extent of Alexis’ anemia, and that complications from it would lead to both her and the baby’s near death during childbirth. It was probably better that we didn’t see what was coming: two days of terror and a moment of panic when the baby’s heartbeat would slow to a stop on the monitor in the emergency room.
To cope with her pregnancy-related health issues and the stress from her job, Alexis had started watching stand-up—a lot of stand-up. Everything and everyone, old comics and new, deadpan one-liners to story-driven callbacks to slapsticky hacks. At the end of a long week, just hearing her laugh was the best feeling in the world.
Without much I could do to pragmatically ease her discomfort, I wondered: Was laughter something I could help out with?
I hadn’t really considered it before then, and I’d been told throughout my adolescence that I was “serious,” “worrisome,” and “not a natural for the stage.” My first and last performing role in middle school was as a Roman soldier in a church play. During rehearsal—and, to the horror of the self-serious church elder/ playwright/director, during all three actual performances—I literally couldn’t stop smiling as I stabbed the moaning, loinclothed Jesus with a Nerf sword. In high school, my only appearance on stage was in a community-theater production of The Wizard of Oz, in which I had two non-speaking roles as a cornstalk and an element of dust within a tornado.
I had no idea how to write jokes or perform them, but I knew I wanted to try.
The next day, a Sunday, I wasn’t as lucky with the surf as I’d been the day before. It was decent, but the report had called it “Great to epic!” and it felt like everyone and their cousin from out of town had decided to hit it. After the rippy beachbreak paddle out, we all sat like an audience, glaring at the horizon, waiting for the ocean to perform for us, waiting for some waves.
I went a long time without a half-decent one. Bored and frustrated, I started trying to write some jokes in my head—something about how surfing and comedy share a few words in common: Bomb. Set. Stand-up.
What a stupid thing. I couldn’t even make myself laugh.
The longer I sat in the lineup without a wave, the more tense and annoyed the cluster of human animals around me seemed to grow. Someone tried to go on a weird, backwashy blip on the inside and shouted in annoyance at the attempt.
Other surfers stretched their necks, looking skyward at a lazily soaring frigate bird. A few backpaddled for position, jostled this way and that, glaring to shore at their lineups.
One guy tried to strike up a conversation. “Swell’s hitting it too straight,” he said.
“Onshore’s picking up.”
The same old stale talk, which somehow served only to amplify the general level of annoyance. A few of the older heads grimaced and paddled away from the pack.
One of them stayed, and I didn’t hear what he said, but he cracked a joke. Laughter suddenly rippled through the lineup—and just at that moment, we all, thankfully, spotted some lines on the horizon.
We turned and went—some people got good ones, others got not-so-good ones—but the exhale of the waves detonating on the sandbar mirrored the release of all the built-up tension that’d been festering in the overcrowded lineup.
I dropped into a small left that gathered juice and peeled off down the beach, recurving near the shore into a bowly end section. It was one of those waves where everything just went right, and, as I kicked out, I laughed a short, surprised “Ha!” that seemed to come from nowhere.
I paddled back out, chuckling to myself. The next one was a dumpy closeout that I optimistically pulled into, only to pull through out the back. Emerging from underwater, I shook my head and laughed a different sort of laugh. This time, it was more of a “Yeah, you got me”—like a sigh of comprehension after a really bad pun.
I noticed all types of laughs in the lineup that day. A laugh in shared joy as one of the old guys from the neighborhood got a great wave. A laugh in annoyance as I missed a wave myself. A sneering laugh from Dave as he watched me miss it. A laugh of fear and surprise when a juvenile sea turtle, the size of a shoebox, bumped into my leg.
It occurred to me that, in some ways, surf sessions can mirror the structure of a stand- up comedy set. A comic’s routine is all about creating tension (the setup) and then releasing it (the punchline). Oftentimes, the setup of a joke is when the comic introduces taboo top- ics, words that make people cringe, or subject matter that makes the audience purposefully uncomfortable. Then, after building up this awkwardness or anticipation, the punchline (hopefully) dissipates that energy.
The underlying structure of the session was just that: first the tension that built up during the wait for sets, followed by its release—some- times with actual laughter, or at least with an internal grin—and then the paddle back out, letting the tension build again.
The next weekend, after supper but before we turned on a stand-up special, I pulled up YouTube and went to a 1950s sound-effect laugh track.
“What are you doing?” Alexis asked.
“I wrote you a tight five!” I said. “Before we watch something, I want to tell you some jokes.”
She laughed at me, which was a promising start.
I pressed play and, backed up by the foundational chuckles of the prerecorded audience, tried to say some silly things. Alexis burst out laughing at the absolute stupidest joke in the set, some fart joke. I felt incredible.
Afterward, we curled up together under a blanket and watched a real comic do their thing. Just the two of us—for the last month it would ever be just the two of us.
As I was writing jokes for Alexis during that last trimester, doing my own sort of tiny-desk performances for her on Friday nights—and in the years since, as I’ve gone to open mics and said silly things—I’ve found that the comic and the surfer really do share a lot in common.
Unlike other areas of life, it’s relatively easy to measure the result of a good comedy routine or session. Both activities share an immediacy of feedback. If I tell a good joke, it makes the audience laugh. If they don’t laugh, it didn’t work.
Same with a ride: It’s easy to tell when it’s a good wave or not, both from the internal response and (sometimes) externally from the hoots or nods from others in the water. Of course, this isn’t always down to the joke or to the surfer. The comic and the surfer both have to improvise. Different jokes and different boards work better in different locations and different conditions.
Being able to laugh at myself first is necessary too, both on stage and in the water. Obviously I can’t take myself too seriously when I’m writing and performing jokes, even though I can undertake the craft and the study of the art form in earnest.
Another echo comes in the same way a comic and a surfer need a high tolerance for failure. Because of this, both joke-telling and surfing require a strict, almost irrational dedication. This is covered by an often feigned nonchalance and self-deprecation when something, surprisingly, goes right—even if it took a confluence of the right crowd, setup, and conditions, plus years of study, practice, and luck, for that moment of rightness to happen.
Usually these instances are fleeting and unrecorded. I might tape my own set or get someone to film a wave or two from the beach, but it’s never quite the same watching it back. What matters, I’ve found, is that moment, that space—if the audience is laughing, if the wave feels good. Most times, if a set is good or a stand-up routine goes well, I’d actually prefer not to see any evidence of it after the moment has passed.
I think about impermanence a lot these days with a baby running around the house, pushing the boundaries of a reality she’s just discovering. I’m grateful that my daughter and her mother are here, alive, and healthy. Today, Saturday, we’ve hit naptime—finally, after a messy lunch with peach juice all over the kitchen floor.
I get into my springsuit, grab my board, get on my bike, and head toward the water. As I walk across the sand, I wonder, How long until the baby joins me out there? The tide’s a little deep, and the trade wind’s picking up, but it’s not blown out yet. As I paddle out, I spot Charlie and Don to the north. Travis, who’s got a newborn of his own about my daughter’s age, drops into a chunky left, a nice set wave that throws a blue-green lip just past his crouching head.
I paddle toward a place where the crowd’s thinner. Another set rolls through, and I watch as both Charlie and Don get nice rides.
I stretch my neck and roll my shoulders. It’s not hitting where I am.
It looks like it’s breaking well up the beach, and I get annoyed I didn’t head straight there. Maybe my lineup marker, which has been solid this past week, isn’t working today. I feel jealous. But my gut says that the moment I start paddling away, this spot will turn on. I stay where I am and try to think up some one-liners to dissipate my impatience.
Someone from farther down the beach paddles toward me and sits inside. A weak set pushes through, but it’s all crossed up. Annoyed, we look up the beach and watch an unridden left peel off. The guy on the inside glances at me, then starts that way.
Hey,what do surfers and tired parents have in common? I think. They both need a break.
Okay, that does it.
Just as I’m about to paddle north, I notice lines on the horizon. They’re to the south, but I know they’ll follow the bathymetry, recurving toward this exact patch of sandbar.
The first wave rolls through, then the second, and I pass on both—but the third, that’s what I’m after. I spin and get right into it. The wall stretches out in front of me, steep and fast for a moment. Then it backs off and a nice bowly section shapes up. There’s another turn and it lengthens out—speed down the line, a quick check and off the top to repeat and repeat, letting the feeling, and the internal laugh track, compound.
For the next hour, any wave might as well be the last wave, or might as well be the first—each one its own little source of joy and relief, like a joke.