When I was 7, I was given the thing I wanted most for my birthday, which was a doll that roller-skated. This was a real product; I wanted it badly. It turns out, though, that watching a doll roller-skate is sucky and boring. Desire is fleeting and deceptive. What I still don’t know is where the desire came from. Roller-skating dolls do not fall into an obvious evo-psych category, so I assume outside influence was in play. As a general rule, parents are not good at directing and controlling their children’s desire for consumer goods, and my parents’ toy tastes tended towards the wooden anyway, making them unlikely suspects. Since I didn’t have a television and targeted Instagram ads were a long way in the future, straightforward advertising bombardment can be ruled out. At this distance, I can’t really reconstruct how I came to know of the roller-skating doll, much less want it.
The year I turned 40, I decided I wanted to learn to stand-up paddleboard. This was only a few years ago, and so the causal chain is easier to reconstruct. At a family gathering, I saw my cousin on a paddleboard. Then, later that summer, I was walking by the river where I live, and I saw a stranger on a paddleboard. It seemed really nice. The river is pretty, the trees are pretty. It seemed like it would be nice to spend time on the river in that way.
But this narrative still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Why a paddleboard and not a kayak? Why that particular moment in time, when I had already lived in the same town for years and years, and no doubt seen dozens of people having a nice time paddleboarding? A lot of online articles about trends in paddleboard sales turn out to be thinly veiled or totally unveiled PR pitches. What the 2019 Outdoor Foundation (the Outdoor Foundation shares a website with the Outdoor Industry Organization) Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety tells me is that at the time they ran their numbers, there were 3.5 million stand-up paddleboarders in the U.S., and that 1.5 million people had adopted the sport since 2013. They also say, “Surf culture and mindset still lingers through the stand-up paddling community,” which gets at something important and also weird about stand-up paddleboarding, which is that although obviously its own thing, it can also feel like one of those collaborations Target does with fashion designers, where something self-evidently cool and also more-or-less unobtainable for normal people, in this case surfing, is made much less cool but at least available.
I would like to say that I didn’t think about my own coolness at all in this process, but that would be a lie. Even if paddleboarding itself was not cool, the idea of becoming someone comfortable on the river seemed cool. But it was also not the kind of thing that I usually did; I am indoor-oriented. And it often seems like the only form of cool with any currency in middle age is a certain stalwart consistency of style, Haruki Murakami and his t-shirts or Grace Coddington’s red hair. Paddleboarding was the opposite of that.
But I wanted to. I knew wanting to do it was the product of unseen cultural forces and a million people looking cool in instagram photos and I knew part of me was imagining an instagram-photo version of myself on the river and I knew how often things I had wanted for those reasons had turned out to suck, and I wanted to do it anyway.
Even though it felt dorkier to succumb to an obvious trend-driven desire as a middle-aged person, in the most literal sense I could not possibly have done this earlier in my life. For one thing, I have more money; for another, I am not scared of driving in the same way. Both of these are developments I have complicated feelings about, especially the driving. Driving is, actually, a terrifying thing to do, and also bad for the world. However, driving is a useful precondition to taking up location-specific and equipment-heavy pastimes, as is disposable income.
So I went to the paddlesports store in my town, not far from the raw juice store. (I live in Northern California; both may be legally mandated.) The guy behind the counter said they didn’t offer lessons, but I could rent a board from them and take it out on my own. This did not seem like what I wanted. I am not coordinated and my sense of spatial geometry is bad. I pictured myself falling into the river under the eyes of people I would have to see in the raw juice store later.
I found a different paddlesports place in my town. They didn’t offer lessons, but they did have tours. Someone else would be there and demonstrate the basic strokes. That sounded OK. I scheduled a tour. When I showed up for the tour, the guy who was supposed to be giving a tour was not there because his boat had broken down in a neighboring county. They told me I could call and reschedule, but I was a little put off by the boat breaking down.
So I forgot all about it for a good year and a half, at which point I discovered there was a place in a different neighboring county which actually did give lessons and I signed up. The only students were me and a woman probably 10 years younger than me. There was also supposed to be a guy. When he didn’t show up the instructor called him to see where he was; he told her it was too cold to be on the water.
The instructor was exactly the sort of person who makes paddleboarding seem cool; she was maybe 10 years older than me and blonde and extremely beautiful and had also obviously spent a lot of time in the sun, none of which she regretted. She got us onto our boards on our knees and we pushed out into the bay, and at that point something happened which I absolutely did not expect, which is that gliding on the water, still on my knees, with the sunlight streaming across the water and the whole bay in front of me turned out to be exactly what I had been wanting; filled exactly the shape of the desire that I had set aside for wanting to paddleboard.
The things about California are that it is every bit as beautiful as its reputation would suggest and that it is beautiful in a way that constantly recedes from the viewer. The freeway winds through golden hills that cannot be accessed. There are secret beaches and secret stairways—there is a giant set of white steps in Echo Park that I encountered for the first time in the moonlight and that felt as close to magic as anything ever has, a magic undimmed if irrevocably altered by the fact that I later learned that they were a central part of Eric Garcetti’s daily workout plan—and then there are places that are not secret at all, but are almost impossible to get to without time and money. A lot of the California obsession with real estate is pragmatic—who can afford to live here now and under what conditions is a serious question—but some of it has always seemed to me to have an art market undercurrent, a desire to carve off a chunk of something undeniably beautiful for oneself. The entire archive of Zillowing Out addresses these questions much better than I can; it also suggests that these are actually universal questions that I see through the lens of California because I live in California.
The point is that in that moment of gliding out on the board, it felt like everything I wanted from California was being given to me.
So I took the lesson and then I took another lesson and then I rented a paddleboard from them and then I did it again, and eventually I went out and bought an inflatable paddleboard of my very own. Before I took my inflatable paddleboard out on the river in my town, I practiced inflating it in my driveway. Everything about this—the equipment, the physical dexterity, carrying objects around—seemed to carry a high likelihood of public incompetence, and I do not like being incompetent in public, although that too I am more easygoing about than when I was young. There are a lot of videos titled things like “Top 10 Mistakes New Paddleboarders Make,” and I watched them. Number one was holding the paddle the wrong way. I watched with a lot of attention.
Going out on the river was great. There was some incompetence on my part, but nobody noticed or cared. There were egrets and a great blue heron and lots and lots of ducks. There was construction equipment and tug boats and people fishing. I saw the town I lived in from an angle at which I had never seen it. I came home and drank my coffee and felt good about myself and the world.
There should be and probably is a phrase for the opposite of a guilty pleasure; in my head I have been calling them aspirational pleasures. The pleasure is real, but so is the knowledge that your most judgmental high school teacher would not find anything to criticize in how you are spending your time. And just like with guilty pleasures, that knowledge tinges the pleasure itself, echoing through the ways you think about it and talk about it. Every time I went out on the river I felt good about it, and proud of myself, and every time I decided that I would rather do other things I felt bad and furtive about it, and every time I checked my tide app (the river is tidal, OK?) or my wind app I felt like I was making a claim about who I was and I felt both good about it and ridiculous. After all, I had had four decades to form a sense of myself, and that self was not someone who knew about tides. But also I had had four decades of watching previous beliefs I had formed about myself dissolve and re-form under the day-to-day accumulation of events. I had gotten over feeling bad about things I used to think of as guilty pleasures—at the end of the day eating marshmallows out of the bag is just a pleasure—so maybe this could be the same. Maybe a thing could just be fun.
Anyway, I loved paddleboarding. I loved being out on the river and seeing the Canada geese peering over the edge of the bank. One time I saw a seal. (The river is tidal!) I didn’t get much better at it (I have thought about this Jaya Saxena essay on pole dancing at least once a month since it came out) but I got more comfortable. I knew where I needed to park and how long it would take to blow up my board and I knew what the prevailing wind was and it was starting to feel lived-in as a hobby.
And then it had been about a year since I bought my inflatable and I was out on the river paddling back to where I had parked, which was against the wind. I was really working hard, which was fine, because I had known that it was going to be windy and had calibrated the distance accordingly. But it was still a pain in the ass, and every time the paddle came out of the water for a second the board lurched in an ungraceful fashion. One of the two outrigger canoe clubs that operates out of the marina near me came up from behind. (It always amazes me that my relatively small town can support two separate outrigger canoe clubs. In my mind they started as one club that got into a feud, but that’s probably wrong.)
They came up behind me and one of them started shouting something at me and then all of them started shouting and it turned out that what they were shouting was to turn my paddle around because I had it the wrong way.
I did not want to turn my paddle around. I was maybe, grudgingly, prepared to believe that they were right, but it seemed like a matter for private experimentation. On the other hand, they were right there, shouting in unison. It did not seem like they would stop until I turned my paddle around.
I turned my paddle around. They cheered, loudly, and went past. When they were out of sight, I turned my paddle back in the way I was used to.
It was maybe five minutes later that the other outrigger club came up behind me. “Great day, isn’t it?” one of them said. Yes, I said, it was. “A little windy,” he said. I agreed. He said, “You know, you’re holding your paddle backwards.”