Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Totally True Story From the Surfing Shores Of Hawaii by Len Barrow

It was a typical sunny morning at Daimond Head. I pulled up into the parking lot of the surf break named Lighthouse. The waves were good; a glassy head-high swell with a mixture of east and southwest swell pushing together to make perfect small A-Frame peaks. As I focused my eyesight on the break which is about 200 yards below the parking lot I noticed that it was unusually crowded and my initial optimism was dulled like a kid who goes to the toy-store but can’t find his “perfect” toy.

My thoughts shifted to the characters that inhabited the break (or shall we say Zoo) like territorial chimpanzees who were all hyped on being the Alpha Ape of Lighthouse. I knew the characters all to well. There was the “tapped “ dude with barbed wire tattoos on his neck and who’s body was cut like Bruce Lee. He had this truly frightening glare which he used to effectively intimidate those he perceived to be weak and feeble. Mr “Tapped” had the bizarre habit of taking off and going left strait into the rocks and he seemed to enjoy it. There was the “Bully”. He was large and muscular but could not surf. He caught many waves as no one complained about his greed due to his muscularity and his ability to induce fear in others. Once someone quietly grumbled and the Bully chased him around on his surfboard in almost perfect circles while simultaneously screaming at him. It was both hilarious and grim to watch.

My favorite guy to check out was a person who I called “Troubles” . Troubles was almost universally hated by everyone as he was intensely aggressive and greedy. He dropped in on all and seemed to regard myself as the lowest link in the feeding chain as he loved to drop in on me as I never retaliated. His behavior got him into numerous fist fights which remarkably took place barefoot on the reef while standing in two feet of water. They were amazing affairs as they lasted some minutes and invariably ended up in bloody faces and especially bloody feet. It made MMA cage fighting look like child’s-play. Troubles adapted to the situation of getting punched out too many times by learning Kung Fu. This hardly helped as the fights were just elongated and more violent not to mention most spectacular.

Everyone was out to greedily get as many waves as possible (myself included) in the “Free Market” of surfing. The general attitude was if you could not take the heat of lighthouse then you were a kook and should not be “out here“. Survival of the fittest seemed to be every-ones mantra.

Despite the characters aforementioned , lighthouse has a few wonderful people who make order of the whole mess not by being the oppressive violent alpha males but through the use of a more fraternal, caring attitude. “Mr K” can be counted as one of these people. This man was an excellent surfer. In our sport, surfers who become exceptionally good sometimes become very arrogant. Surprisingly, Mr “K” was the most humble guy you could meet. His explosive surfing was fascinating to me given his mellow personality. He was also a native Hawaiian from the East side of Oahu raised in the ways of old Polynesians. I knew this as his family name was an old Big Island name and he reminded me of the Kupuna or old Hawaiian aunties and uncles that I grew up with in Hawaii who were invariably filled with wisdom.

Mr K had an amazing ability at the surf break of Lighthouse. Before he paddled out Mr. Tapped, Troubles, the Bully and a host of others would be engaged in the most socially dysfunctional cultural vacuum of bad vibes, yelling and hatred. It seemed like the war in Afganistan had relocated to the waters of Hawaii.

In to this boiling cauldron, Mr K would paddle out, all five foot six inches of him. He would start off surfing the inside, doing strait ups, airs and smooth cutbacks. The “lower ranked’ people were assigned a position on the inside where they got the left over junk waves that the “high ranked “ people did not want. Interestingly Mr K would stay among this group and show Aloha to them.

In regards to Mr K, it is important to ask the question, what is Aloha?

Aloha is unmitigated love or compassion for anyone, despite their race, social rank, your relationship with them or your position in life. It is like pure compassion. When you show Aloha , you invite anyone into your “house” (whatever that may be, surf break, social space, etc) and treat them as if they were your brother or a long lost friend. Then you SHARE what you have. You do not just reserve love and sharing for your immediate family and closest friends. It goes to everyone. Aloha was what Mr K. did and was.

Mr K would often introduce himself to the “lower ranked people” and got their names. He always did this with a big genuine smile. What he then did was most unusual given our present culture model of free for all competition, instant gratification and bizarre video games . He would go to the outside of the break and greet the Bully, Troubles, and Tapped and a host of other alpha males. They all intensely respected Mr. K as he surfed ten times better than all of them and in addition to being very Hawaiian (no one could tell him “I was here first” as his Family had been here for 800 or more years) he had an amazing social ability with people based on his Aloha. He would paddle for waves then let the wave go so the lower ranked individuals could get waves. Mr K would then introduce the Lower ranked folk to the higher ranked folk as his personal friends!

As I work as a professional Anthropologist this social phenomena and its consequences were amazing to watch. After Mr. K did his thing the break would invariably become more calm. The vibe would turn peaceful and people began sharing waves. No one would yell or intimidate others as I truly think that they were afraid and embarrassed of being a jerk in front of Mr K. The surf break actually transformed from a dysfunctional oppressive social space to a functional setting based on one mans Aloha. Mr K became the Alpha Male via compassion and social consideration, not violence and intimidation.

I think he knew what he was doing. In Hawaiian culture, the natural outcome of Aloha is a state of Lokahi and this results in things being Pono. Lokahi is a type of balance of all things. When things become disordered and unjust in the Hawaiian worldview of old, the act of Aloha is one way to reset things into natures equilibrium. This results in relationships that are in their best position for all concerned hence they are Pono , or honorable and fair. It is a socially ingenious Polynesian system honed by hundreds of years of existing in a harsh island environment where there was no other alternative but to get along or perish.

I think this could be a lesson for all of us. Every time I see Mr K doing his thing, I am almost forced to reflect on my own behavior as I am often greedy in the waves and much to aggressive and selfish in life. As predicted in the Hawaiian model of thinking or philosophy this causes social problems for myself and sometimes constructs distorted relationships in my world; not to mention other peoples worlds that I disrupt.

If there is anytime for reflection it would be now, given how short life is and considering the worlds generally poor social and environmental condition; in other words, a world that is out of balance or out of Lokahi and hence not Pono (the most beneficial order to all).

The following are not abstract or lofty questions. The world is in front of us and this century is arguably the make or break century for the human species and its survival. If this is not an important reason to rethink our relationship to others and the environment I don’t know what is.

Do I reserve kindness and Aloha for just for my immediate family and friends as is typically the case in our society? Is this a truly healthy thing to do in the long run (for it is easier)? Shall we shelter ourselves in our own “personal gated community” mentally cutting out the world or should we engage the world in different more socially and environmentally realistic terms? May we consider the well being of others that seemingly have no relationship to us or those who are of a different ethnicity and class even though it does not benefit us directly? Could we think and act on the health of the social and physical environment?

Maybe the real question is should we have Aloha?

Thanks Mr K………..

written by Len Barrow


  1. Very interesting and well written article.

  2. Hi ,I'm Eric from Biarritz Bask country ,France
    i meet Len Barrow when i was in Hawaii few years ago.
    As i'm come back in Hawaii next february i'd like to see him again and talk about all these thongs with him
    can you help me to email him?
    thank you all



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