Posted by: | September 21, 2010

Two new novels September 2010

This September, Nova Scotian author Lesley Choyce is releasing his first novel for adults in more than seven years called Raising Orion, published by Thistledown Press. He’s also celebrating the publication of Random, a young adult novel coming out from Red Deer Press. Choyce is also one of three featured surfers in the documentary Winter Wave Riders (Hemmings House Productions) which is being screened at the Halifax Film Festival this month. In addition, he is also part of a unique poetry-music collaboration with Toronto singer-songwriter Jason McGroarty and soon to release an album blending spoken word and pop music. His previous two CDs were with the band The SurfPoets.

Lesley Choyce is a novelist and poet living at Lawrencetown Beach in Nova Scotia. He surfs in the North Atlantic year-round. He also runs a literary publishing house and teaches English at Dalhousie University. He is the host of a regular nationally-broadcast program on BookTelevision called Off the Page with Lesley Choyce. Choyce is the author of more than seventy books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction for adults, teens and children. His writing has earned him several awards, including two Dartmouth Book Awards and the Ann Connor Brimer Award for the young adult novel Good Idea Gone Bad. His work has been translated into Spanish, French, Danish and German.
Choyce will be available for interviews this fall in Halifax and Toronto. He will be reading from his two new books at Word on the Street in Halifax on September 28.

Posted by: M.A. | November 11, 2007

VIDEO: Lesley Choyce on Surfing

Posted by: M.A. | October 18, 2007

Elegy for a Surfer

By Lesley Choyce

I was in Paris when twenty-five-year-old Kevin Shawn Coker drowned while surfing back home at Lawrencetown Beach. When I arrived back home, exhausted from a series of airline misadventures and delays, I learned of Kevin’s death and I took it pretty hard.

I didn’t know him very well but I’d surfed with him once or twice. He was from PEI, drove an old Volvo station wagon, and seemed like a pretty nice guy. He was relatively new to surfing and I gave him credit for working through his learning curve during winter conditions. In order to learn to surf well, you have to wipe out a lot. The dues you pay for winter wipe outs in near zero degree salt water is fairly stiff. Only the truly surf‑addicted are willing to undergo the punishment for the reward.

On the day of Kevin’s accident, he was surfing alone. Back home here, I asked every surfer I knew what the conditions were like that day. I had this strong need to know every detail. I have this gut feeling that every person who surfs at the beach where I live is somehow part of my community or my extended family. So now one member of that community had died tragically and I wanted to understand what went wrong.

The bare bones of the story suggest that Kevin drove out to the beach on a pretty rugged day. A strong northeast wind was roaring, the waves were not great surfing waves ‑‑ head-high, maybe a bit more, and gnarly. A lot of wind up the face of a wave, a bit of a rip headed out past the point. Grey, cold, gusty and pretty ugly. Not a great day to surf. But the guy had made his trip to the beach, was hungry for waves ‑‑ I’m guessing here ‑‑ and went surfing alone. Something happened while he was out there and he didn’t make it back to shore. He must have been far enough out when it occurred and that sent him drifting (still attached to his board by the leash) in the wind-driven current that was pushing him away from the beach and west to where he was found by the Coast Guard in Portuguese Cove on the other side of Halifax Harbour.

I’ve surfed plenty of times in similar conditions and if I was home, I’d probably have waited for better waves, more favourable winds, or surfed some place else. This is all a matter of comfort more than safety I guess, so I don’t judge Kevin as being totally careless, or foolhardy. I’ve surfed plenty of times alone ‑‑ never something I’d advise anyone to do. I’ve had more years of surfing experience than Kevin did but had it been me out there that day — had I not had a book launch in France ‑‑ well, tide and timing could have done the same damned thing.

So what to make of this tragedy? Aside from feeling a personal loss of a member of my tribe, this brotherhood/sisterhood of Nova Scotia surfing, I feel a tremendous loss of innocence. No one has ever drowned here before in a surfing accident. It’s even extremely rare for anyone to get hurt.

There were a couple of stitches over the years when somebody drove their fin into somebody else while dropping in on a wave. Most of us have been thrashed, thumped and held down a bit too long by cold, unforgiving waves when we least expected it. I remember getting smacked across the bridge of my nose once when I kicked out of a wave. A great cinematic geyser of blood poured all over my dry suit. I put my tooth through my lip in last year’s surf contest while crouched inside a mighty fine beachbreak barrel. But up to now, surfing in Nova Scotia, even during the blisteringly cold months of January and February, was not a life and death thing.

One haunting voice in my head tells me that if I had not been playing poet in Paris that day, I would have made a surf check or two at the beach as would be my usual weekend thing to do. If I had run into Kevin suiting up in his old Volvo, I would have told him to go to the cove in Seaforth and save himself some pounding from the gloomy-looking waves. Smaller waves but more protection from the wind, perhaps. Too late for that now.

People, surfers included, don’t tend to like other people who give unsolicited advice. But I’ll do it more often now to kids who look like they are about to surf potentially dangerous waves. I’ll do it even if they think I’m an uptight old fart. I’ll do it even if they laugh at me. Not a big deal.

No this wasn’t supposed to be a rant about safety. Surfing, after all, is partly a business of taking chances. Trying to do a thing you don’t think you are capable of doing. Throwing your board off the lip, squeezing tight into a watery tube and then trying to make it out. Playing it a little closer to the danger zone than the last time. The danger is more in your head than in reality, but it feels good to push your limits once in a while.

A couple of years ago, a visiting surfer from South Carolina (he said he was an unemployed minister in a denomination I wasn’t familiar with) stopped by my house asking me if I’d rent him a board. The waves were huge that day from a hurricane going by to the south. It was summer, though, and the water was warm. I asked him first about how well he could surf and he told me he was a real hot shot. I couldn’t bring myself to rent him a board but I loaned him one and told him where he could surf. It was a place that I felt was safe for a foreigner. Even though he was a supposed hot shot, he’d never surfed a coast with actual rocks before. I told him not to surf the Big Left which was big and raging like a freight train that day, a place that gets its kicks from sucking you over the meaty falls and then pummelling you along the rocky shore mercilessly.

The South Carolina surfing minister disavowed my commandments and, looking for the bigger thrill of danger, went straight to the place I told him to avoid. He never even made it into the water. Instead, he stood in front of a great sea-soaked bolder waiting for some slack between sets for paddling out. Before that hiatus arrived, he was targeted by the biggest, meanest wave of the day that roared up and gave him a forceful body slam up against the boulder. He took a fairly serious ding to the head and ended up on my sofa, just shy of a trip to the hospital. I decided never again to loan any of my old boards to strangers who thought they understood the power of our waves.

One of the great unspoken codes of surfing, and we have all sorts of unsaid primitive laws in the republic of surfing, is that you always help out anybody in trouble in the water. Surfers have hauled in maybe a dozen swimmers over the years who got into trouble at Larrytown. And if I got smacked unconscious by my board while surfing, I trust that even my meanest enemy in the water (if I had one) would haul my sorry ass ashore and coax me back to consciousness with whatever it might take. But, hey, it’s a fairly sparsely populated coast and it’s hard not to surf alone if you only have yourself for company and the waves are a nifty six foot and peeling clean like crystal ware at your favourite secret spot.

I have in recent years slacked off on surfing what I consider to be big stupid waves. Cold winter conditions with relentless overhead walls, big churning piles of white water and no recognizable path to the lineup without punching through a dozen senseless walls of winter wave. Winter surfing is an inevitable package of pleasure and pain. Cold water, under water, frigid saltwater on the face for overly long seconds hurts like hell. My advice to myself on that issue is always the same: don’t wipe out. Stay above the water line. But it doesn’t always work that way.

The physical impact of very cold water on your body is generally hard to imagine unless you’ve been there. I try to avoid all that physical pain but without total success. Last winter my dry suit zipper came undone while surfing on a minus 20 degree day. I flopped into the sea after a good glassy ride and my suit sucked up half the Atlantic Ocean. The sea was not my friend that day but it garnered no true malevolence. I always have to remind myself that the sea is neither cruel nor kind. It follows laws of weather, physics and hydraulics or El Nino logic but doesn’t decide to give pain or pleasure on a whim.

Feeling the stiletto sting of bitter cold water and looking a little like the Michelin man, I slowly floundered ashore, still attached to my board, crawled up on the ice-capped rocks, lay down to drain the water out of my suit, then stumbled like a numb loser to my car and eventually a long slow thaw in the shower.

When all of those tragic victims were dying in the icy waters as the Titanic was sinking, I identified with their pain. I have had a good a taste of what it must be like to drown at sea in the North Atlantic. The actual intensity of the cold often seems to me to be beyond reason but that’s only because we were not cut out for that climate. Seals and whales obviously have no gripes nor do those little seabirds from the Arctic, the dovekies, who sometimes keep me company in the ocean.

So all I know is that I still feel pretty badly about the death of this young guy who had been surfing here at my beach. I care about who he was even though I didn’t know him very well and feel diminished by his death. I even feel a kind of responsibility. On the surface that responsibility is illogical. How could I have known something was going to happen and prepared for it? Illogical, right? No, there is a fundamental logic here that revolves around (corny as this sounds) caring.

So I guess this caring thing means speaking up even when it’s unwanted. Giving advice, feeling a certain responsibility to other people. Complaining sometimes. Whether I can change anything, give the right advice or whatever, I should give it a shot. Other people’s pain is, to some degree, my pain and I’d like to minimize it if I can.

I saw this guy on TV from Carlsbad, California, talking about this thing that happened. He thought there was a problem with the bridge of an overhead part of a expressway. He heard an odd noise each time he drove over it. He thought something was wrong with the bridge but he let it go. One day, the bridge fell down and it killed someone who had been driving over it. He said he’d never keep his mouth shut again about something he thought was wrong. He became a great and tireless complainer in the high hopes that he could save someone else some grief.

I identify more with losers and victims and people with problems than I do with successful types and the obnoxious winners of the world ‑- the sports stars, the Emmy award winning actors and the blatantly wealthy. But I’m not always good at following through with my altruistic nature.

Yet something about the death of Kevin Shawn Coker makes me feel more connected to people. And it’s all tied in to feeling some personal loss of a fellow surfer, a member of my extended family of surfing.

But I wasn’t even here that blustery Saturday. I was in Paris, staying at a cheap hotel on the Left Bank. I could spit into the Seine out my window if I wanted to (but I didn’t). I was there as part of another community, one of writers and readers, part of some gargantuan book festival called le Salon du Livre. I liked the family feeling of being embraced (well, at least acknowledged) by people whose lives were tied to writing creative thoughts down on paper and sharing them with an audience. And while in Paris, I hunkered down on a bench along the Seine and studied that brown, sluggish, depressed little river that has been so romanticized by novelists and film makers over the years. The river is imprisoned by high rock walls. The water moves along in a dreary European sort of way, without any real enthusiasm. It doesn’t smell that good. But it was the only body of water available to me and so I mediated by its banks and felt homesick for Nova Scotia, for an animated ocean, for waves, for sweet-smelling sea air, for surging salt water and for my next chance to go surfing.

And although I was treated well in Paris, I felt disconnected and anonymous for the most part. Not a lot of eye contact and people spend way too much time just sitting around in cafes and bars drinking minuscule cups of coffee or glasses of red wine. I would think that would lead to a sort of lethargy which is alien to the energized Nova Scotia creative mind.

So I was glad to get back home. About a week after Kevin had drowned, I went surfing where he had and I caught some fine early morning waves in his honour. I apologized to the wind and the sea for not having been around to lend assistance or give advice. I knew the innocence of surfing here was gone for good but I still felt a strong, powerful bond with the sea, the indifferent sea that gives and takes. And it’s almost a back-handed reminder that caution and caring are the greatest of human responsibilities that should not be shirked.

© Lesley Choyce

Posted by: M.A. | October 18, 2007

Zen and the Art of Canadian Winter Surfing


By Lesley Choyce

It’s one of the final days of February. The air temperature is about -5 degrees but it was much colder last night. The sea water temperature is, of course, below freezing but only the freshwater of the lakes, streams and potholes are frozen. All the local driveways are sheets of ice. But the sea is intent upon remaining its liquid self. It’s salty and active and full of life. I’m sitting on its surface on my surfboard. The shoreline of Nova Scotia is only thirty meters in front of me. I’m staring at a ragged, snow-dusted headland.

Like an idiot, I’m thinking about mutual funds. Alone with a playful mind that’s filled like an old junkyard full of useless scrap, I have nothing better to do than begin to think about mutual funds. As nature’s direct response to this insult, the sea has ceased sending surfable waves my way and I bloody well deserve it.

So I stop thinking about mutual funds and say the mystical eastern word “Om” very loudly. I’ve been rereading and teaching Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha again and so the word “Om” has good reason to be up there in my brain with the other iron scraps, memory shards and jagged heaps of information about retirement investment. A single “Om” seems to be good for a spectacular small but icy parade of near-perfect waves that afford several damn fine rides.

I talk to the waves, giggle a little. Hey, I’m alone and happy. At this very minute, it’s possible I am the only person surfing in Canada. This, I realize, is another potential ego trap but I gloat on it for a minute, and then I let it go. The little ego blimp drifts off into the faultless empty blue sky and I try to keep my mind empty and pure, knowing that such a deed will conjure more exquisite winter waves.

My drysuit keeps me warm. The sun is on my face. There is little wind. Last night it howled long and hard enough to knock down the power lines and we were without electricity for an hour or so. But none of that matters now. Now is now. The eternal surfing present. No other place to be. Everything is indeed as it should be, unfolding.

That’s when I notice the seagulls: about two hundred of them, directly in the air in front of me. They have gathered suddenly into a very precise formation. All kinds of gulls. Brownish ones, white and black ones, grey ones. Herring gulls and laughing gulls and all their cousins. They have found a thermal rising at the edge of the cliff and they are making it work for them. Thermals, of course, come from heat and the sea is somehow “warm” enough to stir the westerly breeze into a spiralling current of air that, up until this very moment, has been invisible — to me at least, but not to the gulls.

More gulls collect from along the coast and slip into the dance. A joyous, magical dance of birds in a gentle rising cyclone. Last night, before the power went off, I watched a TV version of the movie, Twister, with my kids for the third time. The gull wing thermal looks just like the Atlantic Ocean’s version of an Oklahoma tornado. There’s no one else around on the beach or headland to watch so this is my own personal sideshow and I realize that there’s more here than meets the eye: I’ve seen this very image somewhere else. No, not in some damn movie. Something more ancient than that.

I squint, breathe in pure oxygen to regenerate lazy brain cells, coerce slothful nerve connections. Got it. Pure DNA.

The birds spiraling upward in perfect harmony before me have frozen into a pattern that is now recognizable as a DNA molecule. In the fourth grade, I built a DNA molecule for the science fair out of wood sticks spiraling upward with a vertical metal rod holding them all together. It was a bit static for a science display but I had a chance to become intimate wit the names of all those chemicals that make up DNA. Leave it to the gulls to outdo anything I could have created with wood and metal in the fourth grade. So this day has conspired and triggered one hell of a DNA display as a reminder not to think about mutual funds while surfing. Zen lesson number twelve thousand.

I catch a wave, turn, race, tuck down, dip my hair into the frigid Atlantic, kick out and then look up. The gulls have given up the joyride. No doubt that thermal has ceased as quickly as it had begun. The gulls are now settling onto the rocks in front of me. Seaweed bedraggled, glistening ocean stones, some with white frost toques of snow or ice. The gulls watch me surf for another twenty minutes, then spread their long salty wings and fly off in search of food.

Aside from the lesson about not thinking about mutual funds and the business with the sea gulls skydancing DNA like a full-blown ballet, I’m not sure what other Zen things will come along. But they will. Winter surfing is a good anchor for everything that needs to be said because: 1.) most people think it is absurd and, therefore, I too am absurd for doing it; 2.) it’s full of grand metaphysical and metaphorical possibilities and, 3.)it proves the lesson of some great Bodhisattvas who once said that enlightenment could be achieved from absolutely anything.

Anything I take to mean: great ponderous spiritual thoughts, deep meditation, years of self actualization studying, a grain of sand, doing good deeds everyday of your life, being a really swift Parcheesi player or, herewith, surfing in the winter.

Time is a malleable thing, stretching and contracting and doing all sorts of maniacal things to us and I’ll not let it tangle me up and tie me down like it often does. I’m reminded of Siddhartha learning lessons from an old man, Vasudeva, who lives by a river and ferries people across. Vasudeva is really fond of this river. He loves it and he knows the river can teach him, or anyone, anything he or she needs to know. Rivers — always moving, always different but always the same, always flowing.

Winter will probably lead to spring, as it should, even in a cold country like this. For now, I’ll assume that the Zen I am talking about is simply this: being fully here when stuff (like the gull tornado) happens. Not being someplace else.

Last night, I was driving home from teaching my classes at the university. I picked up Pamela far down one icy road and just turned onto the road where I live — the old gravel lane skimmed over with two inches of frozen snow and ice. As soon as I turned onto the dark road, I slammed on the brakes because something was lying there in my path. At first I thought it was just a big chunk of ice that had fallen off the back bumper of a truck or something. But it turned out to be a seal. I’ve coaxed seals off this road before to keep them from getting run over. It’s never an easy job.

He’d been chasing smelts up into the marsh down those little rivulets that I have named after American rivers: the Delaware, the Hudson, the Potomac, and so forth. He surfaced somewhere, got himself lost and decided to fall asleep on the road. My daughter and I try to get him off the road and onto the marshy ice. Big weepy eyes, a soft beautiful form and a snow-coloured coat. We talk to the seal.

My daughter calls the seal names: Katie, Flipper, Buster. Get off the road, Katie. Come on Flipper. Move, why don’t you, Buster? But she can’t seem to find a name the seal will recognize. I try busker tactics to make him move but he’ll have none of it.

So I drive home and return with a flashlight, a plastic sled, a snow shovel and a can of tuna fish. Trying to save the lives of living things often seems to involve cans of tuna fish or sardines. Curious.

Upon my return to the stranded mammal, I splash some juice from the opened tuna can in the seal’s face but he seems uninterested. He shows his sharp teeth and hisses at us.

“Katie, why are you so nasty?” my daughter asks the seal.

My next attempt involves an old army blanket that is in the trunk of my car. This is the very blanket my mother used to sleep under when she was in the American Coast Guard during World War II. I wave the blanket like a matador and the seal grabs it and I drag him a few inches each time over and over until he’s out of the road.

An hour later, at home, trying to eat dinner, I see car lights stopped at the end of the road and know that the seal is in trouble again. It’s minus 20 and windy out. And bloody dark. The seal is on the edge of the paved road now when I return and my neighbour is there pondering what to do. Together he and I cover the seal in the blanket and shovel him (gently, gently) into the frozen ditch with a snow shovel. We work at it until he is out of harm’s away again. In the morning he is gone. And it appears that he scooted off across the snowy dunes towards the sea and safety.

I fell asleep that night thinking about William Carlos Williams’ short story, “The Use of Force,” in which a doctor is obliged to be physically coercive in his attempt to diagnose and treat a very sick little girl who is completely opposed to his intervention. I never liked the story, but now I identify with the doctor.

That night the stars blazed like hard diamonds. Orion veritably crackled with the intensity of its brilliance. The dark above the sea was clean hard obsidian. The earth itself here in the depths of winter was as hard as ancient boulders and about as forgiving. The clocks stopped at exactly 3:40 a.m. and time engaged again around 5 a.m. If it had been the end of the world, I would have slept through most of it rather peacefully.

And in the morning the sun is out, celebrating the hard blue and white world again. The sea, sky and waves are rewarding me for my kindness the night before. I am provided with waves, birds, DNA and, despite all the garbage clanking around in the brain, I achieve a sense of being here and being now and I am hanging on to it all as if my life depends upon it.

© Lesley Choyce

Posted by: M.A. | September 3, 2007

Hello world!

Welcome to Surfers for Peace.

This is a place where anyone can chime in on the Surfers for Peace idea. Add photos or info about surfing for peace activities.

Surfers for Peace is intended to be a worldwide community of surfers and surf-friendly people who believe there is a true connection between surfing and making the world a more peaceful place to live.

It is a pretty loose and casual, so sign on, post info, leave messages and all that stuff.