Wave Pools, Stormy Days, Old Photos, and Suffering

Why surfers need to thank the Mad King

Hello friends and welcome back to Life Reimagined, a free weekly elixir designed to make you feel good and live better.

If you find yourself with friends and family this week, try to slow down and cherish those moments. You never know how much more of that time you’ll get.

🏄‍♂️ I. Wave Pools

In the 1870s, Ludwig II of Bavaria, “the Mad King,” built the Venus Grotto, an underground aquatic park featuring an electrified lake with breaking waves that soothed the king’s weary soul. This was perhaps the world’s first wave pool.

Midjourney rendition of Ludwig II chilling at the Venus Grotto

Since the time of the Venus Grotto, surfers, engineers, and other nerds have teamed up to polish the Mad King’s idea of producing breaking waves outside of the ocean. Today, there are around 20 surfable wave pools around the world.

A wave pool is basically a swimming pool that uses some mechanism to move energy through the water in ways that create waves like you would find in the ocean. Surfers flock to these artificial waves to hone their skills and surf in places far from the sea.

Last week, I headed to Waco, Texas to try my first wave pool.

My thesis for the trip was that I could accelerate my surfing skills dramatically by paying to ride a perfect wave and avoiding all of the other variables you have to worry about in the ocean — wind, swells, sea life, aggro surfers, and so on.

I only had four hours in the wave pool, but that was plenty of time to confirm the thesis. Every hour in the pool, I had about 15 perfectly shaped waves. I’m working on sharper turns, so that’s what I focused on during the sessions.

But you could use these waves to practice popping up, generating speed, or barrel riding. It’s a neat and efficient way to progress.

Me riding a left at Waco Surf

The main value of the experience is that, unlike the ocean, you’re guaranteed a high number of good waves per hour. That means that you get a lot more time to practice the board-riding part of surfing than you do in the ocean.

On the whole, the Waco wave pool experience was both fun and helpful. Not only did I have the conditions I needed to practice specific skills, but I was surrounded by other surf-obsessed souls who had the same excitement and enthusiasm for the sport.

While I plan to return to Waco and visit other wave pools, I also came away with two ideas about the limitations of these artificial experiences.

1. It’s not a substitute for learning to surf in the ocean. While wave pools can help you learn how to pop up on a board, do turns, and try different maneuvers, they can’t teach you other important parts of surfing.

If you only spent time in a wave pool, you wouldn’t know how to assess ocean and wind conditions, read waves, navigate lineups, deal with the dynamic and unpredicted nature of the ocean, control your breathing during hold-downs, and so on.

And while those are not the sexy parts of surfing, they make up about 95% of the sport. If you’re lucky, 5% of your time is spent on the board.

2. Wave pools take away surfing’s best feature. When you begin to surf, you think you’re just shredding on a board and having fun. But as you enter the ocean time and time again, you begin to see that the sport is actually a pathway for introspection, spirituality, healing, and transformation.

That may sound dramatic, but it’s true. For people who find themselves on the surfer’s path, which is most beautifully captured in William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, the ocean becomes something more than a playground.

The ocean, in all of its variability, power, and vastness, becomes a surfer’s greatest teacher. Simply being in its presence feels like encountering the divine itself, and as you try to harness some of this divine energy to have fun on a board, many unexpected inner and outer changes emerge.

A wave pool misses this part of surfing, and if you’re crazy enough to spend a large part of your life chasing waves, it really is the best part. So while I plan to return to these wave pools to improve my craft, I’m coming away with an even deeper appreciation for my greatest teacher at the moment: the ocean.

P.S. From a business perspective, I think wave pools are still early in the innovation cycle and that there will be hundreds more created over the next few decades. One developer in Florida, for example, plans to create a few dozen wave pools across the country.

The developer’s thesis is that these pools could help make surfing an NCAA-sanctioned sport by creating places to host competitions and for land-locked people to surf. Given that surfing entered the Olympics for the first time in 2020 and continues to grow in popularity, this idea makes sense.

TBD on how this unfolds over time, but there is one thing that is guaranteed: these commercially-driven attempts to bring surfing to more people will be resisted by the droves of surfers who feel that the sport is already overrun with too many kooks.

🎞️ II. “the black-and-white photo”

I wrote a poem about an old photo that I pass on most days.

There is a black-and-white photo

that I pass when entering the kitchen

I notice it only on some days,

usually the difficult ones

In the photo, a 26-year old woman

stands near the railing of a balcony

holding a baby with moppy blonde hair

and nothing but a diaper on

The sky is consumed by thick, dark clouds and

only a thin line of light exists on the horizon

My mom and I are gazing at a turbulent sea

and I can only guess what we were feeling

Our faces are hidden, but I know I was happy

The gloom of darks clouds and choppy waters

are no match for the warm embrace of a mother

who would give anything just to see her baby smile

I think I notice this photo on the stormy days

of life because that’s when I want to return

to the days of being young and held again

But mom is gone and I’m no longer a little boy

I often wonder if this photo foreshadowed the tumultuous

path that mom and I walked when she was still here

Did fate decide that our time together would be

storm clouds with a sliver of light on the horizon?

Or maybe that’s too gloomy of an interpretation

Perhaps the photo meant that mom would guide me

with love through the inevitable darkness of life

so that one day I could find the light and be free

I like that idea better, but it’s too chipper

for those difficult days when I notice the photo

What I feel most acutely on those days is that

I was once an innocent little boy

I was a little boy shielded from the

pain and suffering of everyday existence

My mother’s kind and warm embrace

was all I needed to feel at home in this world

30 years have passed since that day

and even though I’m all grown up now,

part of me still feels like that little boy who

needs mom’s love when he can’t see the light

And I know I can’t be the only one

It’s all of us: strangers, friends, teachers,

grandparents, and even those of us who

have become monsters or monks or saints

We were all once little boys and girls

who needed love to find their way

Some received it and some didn’t

but all of us still need it today

Especially on the stormy days of life when

we can’t see the light and are overcome

by anger, sadness, bitterness, resentment,

fear, overwhelm, and the loss of hope

That’s when we most need the unbounded love

and protection of a mother’s all-knowing embrace

If only we could remember that feeling

All would be well, at least for a moment

🧠 III. Something I’m Thinking About

Deep suffering is the primary catalyst for spiritual transformation.

That suffering comes in many forms: dissatisfaction in your work, watching a loved one battle a terminal illness, or a personal war with the darkness.

When the suffering cuts deep enough, it can lead you toward unexpected and uncertain paths that deviate from all that you expected life to be.

These times of transition are often scary, but if you learn to trust them, I believe you’re likely to end up closer to wherever it is that you need to go.

“We don’t know all the reasons that propel us on a spiritual journey, but somehow our life compels us to go. Something in us knows that we are not just here to toil at our work.”

Jack Kornfield in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Resurfaced using Readwise.

That's all for now. See you next Sunday.

— Cal

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