The shaper looked uncomfortable. He started to say something, then corrected himself, and finally stammered to a halt. I had asked his opinion of another shaper’s boards as part of a game I like to play. The object is to try to get a surfer to criticize something. It doesn’t really matter what it is; if I can get him to say one negative thing about anything I consider it a win. It’s generally harder than getting a nun to curse. After a pregnant pause, he finally said: “you know…it is what it is.”
And there it was: the newest flaccid addition to the rich lexicon of surf slang.
“It is what it is.”
The phrase, which I have heard again and again over the past few months, basically means: “I don’t like it, but won’t say so for fear of upsetting someone.” It’s a shot of pure banal tautology from the Popeye The Sailor Man School of grammar. On the surface, it’s just a polite way of distancing oneself from an unpalatable question. But on a deeper lever, it’s indicative of a much more worrisome trend in modern surf culture — the inability or unwillingness to talk about the negative aspects of this life we all lead.
On one hand there is a certain charm to many surfer’s uncritical view of the world. After all, on a personal level riding waves is about enjoying one’s self sans critique. It’s not about producing art, or making foreign policy decisions, or doing anything that is really very serious at all. Therefore, being eternally positive is part of this innocent lifestyle of groovy hedonism that we surfers lead.
The problem is, we don’t really lead that lifestyle at all. Not any more at least. It turns out, all that Endless Summer stuff was a bit overcooked — the cars were bated with meat, the Ghanaians were surfing when the boys showed up, Cape St Francis barely ever breaks, that perky blonde kid went on to smuggle hash.
It is what it is…
Well, no. Surfing culture isn’t what it is often made out to be. We’ve fallen from sun-kissed grace. We’ve eaten our children. We have sold the fuck out. But so what? This is the way that all cultures mature, and the surfing world is a far richer and more interesting place because of it. We should embrace it, blemishes and all. But instead of addressing our issues, we often smile, flash a lil’ shaka, and vomit up some sterilized, PG version of the Hollister dream that’s guaranteed to sell a lot of board shorts. And make no mistake, we’re selling board shorts and t-shirts and surfing classes and leashes and hoodies and swim suits and sunscreen to the tune of billions of dollars every year. But no one is living the dream. At least not that dream.
In the past, some have argued that the point of surfing media is to get people stoked to go surfing, not to talk about the infant mortality rates of small islands in Indonesia or address the marginalization of shapers who don’t work for big companies. I agree with that to a certain extent. But if we edit our own reality too much, we aren’t creating stoke. Instead, we are treating our readers like fools and knowingly propagating a culture of Spicoli-esque mediocrity in the name of good vibes and community.
When did this happen? When did surfers devolve from the last great rebels in a corrupt world to sycophantic “yes-men” afraid to speak plainly about the good, the bad, and the ugly?
That’s a question for another day, but the one sure thing is, as the song goes, “the kids aren’t alright” and the longer we keep aloha’ing each other with those Stepford Wives smiles, the worse things are going to get. If we all say that everything we don’t agree with “is what it is,” we aren’t pushing surfing forward, or passing anything of worth to emerging generations of surfers. We are just selling board shorts. And when you can’t tell the surfers from the salesmen, then you really have a problem.