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Beginner-ness


According to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association (which is, I have discovered, a real thing) a full 1 percent of the American population participated in Stand-Up Paddleboarding (or Stand-Up Paddle-Boarding, or SUP) each year. The activity has increased in popularity every year, and I came across one advocacy report that suggested it is perennially the most popular sport among beginners in the country.

The methodologies and measurements that drive such claims are a mystery to me. They got me thinking about what it means to be a beginner: to start something for the first time, to hazard, to assay, and to put oneself at the mercy of possible embarrassment. It's something that seems harder with every passing year. Why waste time being bad at something new when we have all of these things that we already like and are good at?

When I lived in Chicago, I hung out with a lot of academics -- folks who love to try out new ideas all the time, but who typically (because of the nature of professionalized academic work) have to focus on one incredibly small thing for long periods of time. The highest-functioning academics that I know -- the ones really built for the game -- are often nuts about endurance sports. There's something about the coincident requirements of intense focus and willingness (even appetite) for self-abnegation that maybe social scientists should write about.

Anyway, my pal Brady had bought a package deal for two stand-up paddle-board rentals on Lake Michigan. His wife was pregnant and understandably not in the mood for any kind of exertion in the summer heat: particularly not the kind of exertion that also involved strapping on a life-jacket and potentially hurling oneself repeatedly into the water. So I got the invite instead.

Brady runs very long distances. Distances that I typically travel by car. He ran a 30 mile race. I would frequently find him sopping wet on the Lakefront with one of his and his wife's foster dogs (just by the way, these people are admirable people who do things like adopt rounds of dogs, even while one of them is carrying a child in her belly on 90 degree Chicago days), in the middle of a "light fifteen miles." That kind of thing.

He's a literature guy, and I'm a literature dilettante, so I figured I'd go with him to see what this SUP thing could teach us.

We went down to Lake Michigan on the day after the Chicago Air and Water Show had concluded. A warm-but-not-roasting morning. Contractors were removing the grandstands from the seats. There was trash blowing around on what seemed to be a light breeze. newspapers, programs, red, white, and blue streamers, cigarette butts, flyers with American flags on them -- the kind of joyful patriotic detritus left in the wake of a celebration of the nation's capacity to destroy the world.

Anyway.

We met on the Lakepath and went down to a rental shack, where a fit, tan, and well-oiled Italian guy greeted us and outfitted us each with a board, fitted us with paddles that were adjusted to our height (and that had curved ends), and a life-jacket (which had the same musty, body-odored smell that rental life-jackets -- no matter if one is row-boating in Central Park, rafting the Colorado River, or [apparently] SUPaddling in Lake Michigan -- always have, everywhere).