What Lies Beneath

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

This week we had a family reunion in Santa Barbara, I turned 40, and I tried several new things.

I tried yak at a Tibetan restaurant (and loved it – it tasted like really tender roast beef),


I had my first (that I can remember) themed birthday party (an Annie singalong with super cool audience participation organized by my sister-in-law),

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complete with a Daddy Warbucks cake (made by my husband and brother-in-law),


and I confronted my Greatest Fear. (And no, my Greatest Fear is not that Daddy Warbucks cake.)


My husband likes to tease me about the time we were taking a marriage prep class and were assigned a “getting to know you” question and answer exercise for homework. He asked me what my greatest fear was and I answered, “Stingrays,” which apparently was funny. Except it’s not funny. At all.

In elementary school, I read The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell, which is probably about something other than a giant, deadly manta ray, but I can’t remember any of the other details. I do remember that shortly after reading it, I had a very vivid nightmare in which a stingray killed my little sister.


My fear of stingrays extended to other fish as well. Once when I was at a lake with my grandpa, we were wading in the water and I felt a fish brush against my leg. It freaked me out so much that I tried to run away, but my feet were stuck in the muddy lake bottom, so only my top half moved and I landed face first in the water. That experience taught me two important lessons: 1) I am a klutz, and 2) underwater creatures are not to be trusted.

In high school, I visited Sea World and decided to touch the stingrays in the “petting zoo” they had there. I was so pleased with myself. I had done it! I was cured of my fear!


Or so I thought. Fast forward to 1993. I found myself in Tel Aviv with a music group from college. I was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at sunset. It was magical, and I was so caught up in the moment that I just kept swimming out away from the rest of my group. When I finally looked back, I realized I was really far away from the shore, so I turned around to swim back. That’s when I brushed against something slimy and looked down to see black, and that was the moment I knew I was going to die right then and there. I swam faster, looked down and still saw the black beneath the water, felt its slick surface, and then swam faster still. It probably only took about 30 seconds, but I remember it as one of the longest and most frightening experiences of my life.

Finally, at one point, still far from the shore, my leg bumped something rough instead of slimy. I looked down again and realized that I had bumped against a rock. It finally dawned on me that I wasn’t being chased by a stingray.I had been swimming over a long bank of slimy black rock the whole time.

I was so relieved. I felt really stupid about it, but I was grateful to be alive. You would think that this experience would help me realize that my fears were a tad bit irrational, but it actually strengthened my resolve to stay far, far away from ocean creatures. Then the Crocodile Hunter, a man who managed to survived cobras and crocodiles, was killed by a stingray. And then I read Life of Pi and realized anything could be beneath that surface. I should just stay far, far away.


Even when I traveled all the way to Bali, I avoided all contact with those creepers. (“Gentle giants?” Puh-leeze. Don’t make me laugh…)


So I’m here near the beach for a week. I should be able to get over this very real, paralyzing fear, right? I hope you know, I only tried it because I am so dedicated to this blog.


Monday morning, we woke up extra early to visit a tide pool. I touched sea anemones and a starfish and saw a sea slug and crabs of various sizes. I watched seals sunning themselves and swimming. It was a lovely morning and my kids loved discovering so much cool stuff. In order to enjoy myself, I had to push away the thought that when it’s no longer low tide, these are the creatures I would be stepping on if I went into the ocean to swim.

And then a few days later, we went swimming at the beach. My sister-in-law is married to a surfer and lives in California, so I was surprised to learn that she hadn’t been in the ocean for at least eight years. She decided she would join me in my attempt to overcome my fear, so we ventured out together on some boogie boards. Her husband joined us and taught me the Stingray Shuffle. I think he was making fun of me, but he said it’s a real thing.



At first, we were mostly just grossed out because there was so much kelp wrapping itself around our legs. She was freaking out even more than I was. But we pressed on. We dared to go further out, and once I could just kick my legs as if I were in a swimming pool instead of having to feel the slimy rocks and who knows what else under my feet, I was just fine. My sister-in-law said, “I’ve got the stoke,” which apparently means she was really enjoying herself.


We hung out for a while waiting for waves that never really came and then I headed back to shore. Just as I got off my boogie board and was about to stand up to walk the rest of the way, a big wave knocked into me and I fell, scraping my elbow on the rocks. It was very graceful and my husband caught it on film. It will never be seen. But overall, we had a pleasant swim,  and my sister-in-law was quite convincing as she assured me that there were no stingrays at this beach.

Meanwhile, some other in-laws were taking a walk further up the beach. They returned just as we were drying off and feeling pretty pleased about our adventure. Guess what they saw on their walk? Some fishermen standing on the beach had just caught a 40 pound stingray and they saw it flopping around on the sand flicking its stinger.

This experience taught me two important lessons: 1) I am a klutz, and 2) in-laws are not to be trusted.


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