Thursday, April 23, 2020

So There Was This Time When...

If there's anything kayakers like (almost) as much as paddling, it's telling paddling stories. Around the campfire, while sitting on the beach, or even while kayaking, we all love to share our past adventures and hear about what other people have done, be it large or small. Stories are one of the strongest bonds that tie humanity together, and while they can serve as a pleasant way to relax in good times, they also serve as a support system and a way to strengthen communities during times of stress.

As someone who's shared a lot of stories (shameless self-promotion: my kayaking memoir A PADDLER'S JOURNEY is available in paperback or ebook), I encourage everyone to take some time to write your own stories down on paper or computer. Maybe even record a video. Save your stories now while so many of us are alone and isolated and with each passing day our memories of what really happened fade a little bit more. Share them with your buddies or your local kayak club. Or save them for your kids when they get older (and can handle the truth). You'll find the process of writing or recording will force you to remember more. It will make the images clearer and the idea behind the store more forceful. It will give you more happiness in the moment and it will save some for posterity.

And as a writer and paddler I have a few pieces of advice to get the most out of your stories (caveat: feel free to ignore everything I say because what works for one person doesn't work for everyone. Find your own path).

- Think about your audience. When you're telling someone a story, that person is right in front of you and you automatically tailor what you say to who they are and how they react. Writing is different. You have to think about who you want and expect to read this. Are they a paddler? Do they know what a boof or a pourover is? Will they want to hear about a grand adventure they might never be able to do themselves or would they like to hear about something that reminds them of what they've already experienced? Do you want them to learn a little more about who you are as a person or do you want them to have a good laugh? Maybe your audience is just yourself, and you want to record your stories so you don't forget the little details later. Until you know who you are writing for it's very hard to get anything right.

- Think about the point of the story. When we're talking in real-time, we normally share a series of events that can ramble around and around, even circling back before arriving at a theme, but when you organize a story into a different medium it becomes necessary to have a point to the whole thing from the start. A thread the action carries through it. It doesn't have to be something deep and grand, but it should be something relatable. Something like: mishaps happen to the unprepared (and it's funny!); it takes courage to attempt something that will change you; friends in hard times are important. Sometimes you won't really see what your point is until you finish the story - but that's a good time to go back and start again! Which leads to the most important point:

- Editing is necessary. Everyone's first draft is pretty crappy compared to what they are capable of. You might be able to get something down on paper the first go-round that is easy to read and gets the point across, but I guarantee you will be able to improve it if you take another look and spend a little more time on it. Editing isn't everyone's favorite thing to do, and it might not be necessary if your goal is simply to record the facts, but it really is the best way to get something out of your own writing. It's when you have a chance to analyze not only what happened but how it sits in your mind and fits into the bigger picture. It allows you the creativity to change and improve how you word things. It's the core of what writing really is.

I hope you all take the time to write out your stories. Share them - you can do it here in the comments if you want. I've shared many over the years, but here's one I don't think I've told before, just to show that it doesn't have to be a long epic, it doesn't have to require near-death experiences or hilarious adventure. It just needs to connect us to the humanity in everyone.

The Best Tip

I've taught a lot of kayak classes and the particulars tend to blend together, but one sticks out not for what happened on the water but afterward. There was a mother (mid 40's) and daughter (college student) in a beginning whitewater class. Neither were great athletes or outdoor adventurers. They both did fine, as I recall, but it was clear the mother had signed them up as a bonding experience, and me and my fellow instructor were wise enough to stay out of their way and let them enjoy their time together. After our wrap-up for the two-day class the mother came over with a big smile and gave us a generous tip - more than enough for the two of them. Always nice to get some extra cash for having the sense not to work too hard.

A few minutes later, as me and my buddy were cleaning up gear, the daughter came over, a little hesitantly. She said she didn't have any money, but she was an art student and she had made a couple postcards as a class project and wanted to give each of us one. I think we all knew that a couple of river bums who lived in tiny rented rooms weren't really the art-collecting type, but we expressed our gratitude and she rushed back to her mom. I headed home and threw the card in my desk drawer.

Here's the part where you might expect me to say I still have that card. Maybe even framed it and put it up on a wall now that I have a house (and a daughter) of my own. But I don't. It's long gone. I mean, it stayed with me for half a dozen moves and it was always right there in my desk whenever I sat down to write. But years ago I needed to send a thank you note to a friend who had been there when I needed them. I knew what card to send.

You see, the card had made me feel good about myself for having helped another person feel a little joy. It only seemed proper to send it along to give someone else that same feeling of satisfaction and gratitude. And that's my tip to you: art is meant to be shared, and in so doing it honors both the giver and the receiver.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Kayak Lessons: The Path Less Evil

One of the best life skills you can learn through paddling, yet one many paddlers seem oblivious to, is how to manage group dynamics. You can learn a lot about this when paddling with your friends or a relatively small group of like-minded paddlers, but the best lessons come through large group paddles like those associated with a kayak club. These paddles create many opportunities similar to our experiences in society itself: how to coordinate and communicate with others, how to reach compromise, how to deal with people at different skill and knowledge levels, how to share and take turns, and even how to deal with a-holes.

Imagine the following scenario. You're on a group paddle with a dozen or more club paddlers heading down the coast. You reach a shoal between the mainland and a large island. You can cut through the rocks but it looks rough in there, or you can go around the island which will be a lot longer and at least partially into strong headwinds. Neither is an appealing choice, but the shoal would be genuinely dangerous to some of the weaker paddlers in your group - we're talking certain swims, likely boat damage, possible bodily injury. And if you go around the island the strong paddlers (including you) will likely be needed to support, and maybe even tow, the weaker ones. You come together as a group to discuss options and one guy (there's always one guy) says you should just go through the rocks. It'll be fine (he means he will be fine). And if anyone doesn't want to go that way they can go around on their own. This proclamation is met with a long pause.

It's at this point you think it all could have been avoided if people had listened when you suggested a paddle on the other side of the Bay. You all could have been paddling in a sheltered cove. Maybe taken a lunch break on a white sand beach where there's an ice cream stand and a beachfront brewery. Instead of choosing between epic disaster and a long slog, you could have been munching on a waffle cone and sipping a Guinness. But no, everyone wanted to do something else. No one listened to you then so why should you speak up now. Let them follow the fool into danger if they can't see the better choice is to go around and keep everyone safe.

And lots of folks will keep silent for various reasons. Maybe some share your distaste in the poor choices in front of you. Maybe some are just afraid - afraid of speaking up, afraid both choices will put them at risk, afraid people will think they are afraid. Maybe some really don't know how to evaluate the choices and don't know what's safe and what's not. So while it's natural to want to leave people to suffer for their own failures to make good decisions, at some point you realize what this means. It means Suzy, who brought three different delicious pies to share at the last meeting but can barely keep up with the group at best of times, will suffer, and suffer more if the group doesn't make the better choice now. It means Jim, the retired social worker who just started paddling but once gave you a lift home from a paddle after you lost your car keys, will suffer. As will some people who you don't really know but are probably decent human beings too. That's not really fair or decent.

You have the experience and abilities to know choosing the lesser of two evils means less evil, which is sometimes the best you can hope for. You know you should speak up. You should make the argument for the best course of action and you should do so determinedly and with passion to make sure the group arrives at the best decision. Not for your sake - you'll be fine no matter what - but for the sake of those who could use your help. That's what it means to be a member of a group. You look out for everyone and make the best of even the worst situations. Maybe you do it because it's the right thing to do. Maybe you do it because you've relied on others for help before and you're likely to need it again. Maybe you just do it because you really like Suzy's pie. But if we all help each other we all end up in a better place, because even the best solo paddlers got there with help from others. Paddling is a community (as is the whole world), and we look after our own (everyone).