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Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Voice of the Beehive

"It's weird what goes through your mind in such a foreign situation. Here I am, as far away from my everyday life as possible, literally thousands of miles away from almost everyone I know and submerged in the ocean. Speech communication with any other human being is impossible, so it's pretty much just you and your thoughts. My thoughts and I aren't always on speaking terms, so it can be kind of tough to be stuck with no one but your inner monologue to talk to. My mind drifts around from a laser focus for sharks to wondering what I could have/should have done differently in life and back about a thousand times every time I'm in the cage. It was kind of therapeutic and certainly more helpful than going to an actual therapist was. I may still be a disaster as a human being, but at least now I have an insane story to tell." - Will Mason

Personally, I haven’t been diving long, but I’ve embraced it like few other things in my life. I took to it immediately and until now, I’ve never given much thought to why that is. Reading Will's excellent take on the shark dive over at sharkfinhat made me pause and think.

Two things in particular struck me. First was that he actually seriously considered we may die and secondly, that he felt the experience of being underwater was therapeutic.

Throughout my life, I've been fortunate to have something I like to think of as good intuition. Sometimes it's a feeling, sometimes it’s an actual voice in my head but either way, it's not something I get all the time. It’s not something I can count on as always being there but when it is, I heed it. It's served me well in these first 40 years.

Unlike “Spidey-sense”, this isn’t a feeling of impending danger (although I’ve gotten that a couple of times). Many times, it's more like a reassurance. It's a feeling that says, "Yeah, this is weird, but you're going to be just fine."

You know, I don't want this to come off as some macho posturing because anyone who knows me knows, I'm not "that guy", but from the moment I stepped onto the boat on the shark dive, I knew we weren't going to be in any danger, ever.

It wasn't like I felt that way thanks to any safety lectures or anything (because God knows, James left out some pretty important shit in the 'safety lecture' we got… for instance, how to avoid sharks if they get in the cage). Still, there was never a doubt about our safety in my mind. I KNEW we were going to be just fine. Call it overconfidence. Call it stupidity. No matter what you call it, though, I want to reiterate one thing.

I didn't think we'd be fine... I KNEW that we would be fine.

I've had that feeling of, "no matter what, I'll walk away from this" more than a few times throughout my life. It's a good feeling to have and it's one that has come to me in the weirdest and most stressful of situations. A good example is back in 1990, I got lost on a day hike in the Angeles National Forest and had to free climb 300 feet in the dark while wearing Vans slip-ons to regain the trail. I never once felt uncertain about what I had to do or questioned whether I’d make it to the top. It was a certainty in my mind that I would get there and I was right.

In the last two years, that feeling has hit me underwater more often than not.

So after reading Will's post and realizing that I definitely had that "Everything's Fine" feeling all day, I started asking myself why. I mean, it's not like we weren't in some of the most dangerous waters on the West Coast. Every minute spent in that cage was spent looking for sharks. Giant, seal-eating, "the things movies are made about" sharks, no less.

After some whiskey and serious reflection, the best answer I can come up with is this.

From my earliest memories, my brain has been like a beehive full of trivial information. Song lyrics, work deadlines, movie quotes, the magna carta, the fact that Playboy’s Miss July 1977 didn't like selfish people… any and all of these things swirl through my head on a minute by minute basis. I'm the guy people call up at work and ask, "Who was it that ran against Clinton in 1996?" or "Who was the producer on Def Leppard's Pyromania album?" or "Who was the cinematographer on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?"

(the answers are Sen. Bob Dole, Robert "Mutt" Lange and Daniel Pearl, respectively)

And personally, I don't mind it. I've never wanted to stop it. It's like my head plays a constant game of referencing and cross-referencing the world as I experience it and that's something I revel in. However, every time I’ve had that feeling of "Everything is fine", it’s been in a situation where the beehive has stopped buzzing; when my attention and focus became laser sharp.

The one place where my brain never strays is underwater. It's such an alien environment that it demands my attention. When I'm down there, I have one job to do: enjoy a safe dive. That takes up so much of my concentration, that I tend to be at peace most when I'm beneath the surface. The pressures of deadlines, mortgage payments, school costs and everything else can't follow me down below sea level, where my focus is on my breathing, my guages, the environment around me and my dive buddy. Many times, my stress can't even make it past the beach. I don't think about the meetings I have on Monday. I don't think about the negotiations I'm behind on at work. I don't think about how I'm going to find a way to surprise Karen for her birthday or how I’m going to juggle my schedule so Lily can get to piano class. It's like from the moment my feet hit the surf, I begin to achieve a zen-like state of mind that I don't get anywhere else. For the length of my dive, all that exists is that moment, that place, and instead of a beehive in my head, I get a very calm, rational series of observations, choices and lists of options, none of which involve pop culture, politics or the preferences of 1970s Playmates.

The best dive I ever had was one that was for all intents and purposes, a wash out. I accompanied a friend who was teaching a student. The two of us went out and set the dive float. Then he went back to shore for his student. While I was there, the float pulled loose from the sandy bottom and I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon on the bottom, holding it in place while the two of them went off to do their underwater examinations.

I was alone except for the four purple sand dollars half buried in front of me.

I heard the clicking of dolphins. I heard the sound of my breathing and those breaths breaking the surface 20 feet above. I felt the push and pull of the tide and heard the waves pounding the shore 100 yards away. I heard the creaks of all manner of creatures climbing the reef nearby, and I'm pretty sure they heard me as I just lay there on the bottom and breathed.

I wasn't diving. I was 'being'… I was simply existing… and everything was going to be perfectly fine. It wasn't narcosis. I didn't feel euphoric. I was focused, but I was relaxed.

Being in that cage with Will, I felt the same way. It was cold as hell. The cage was rolling. The sharks were out there and my nerves were crackling, but it was okay. The beehive was quiet and there was no doubt within it that everything was fine.

I've never really thought about it before now, but for me, it's that time underwater, where my brain and I can be selfishly alone, that I cherish. I don’t get to dive as often as I'd like, but I have no doubt that when I do, it makes me a better father, husband and person. So yeah, Will’s right.

That’s way better than going to an actual therapist… sharks or no sharks.