A white-water bachelor party

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My bachelor party is over. While this was not technically my last weekend as a bachelor—we have a few more weeks before heading to Taiwan to start our world-wind wedding extravaganza—we celebrated the coming end of the early chapters of my life, also known as the PJ days, that’s the “pre-the Doolies” days. To give away the ending early: I had a wonderful weekend. While it was not a traditional bachelor party, it was tailored to my likes: great friends, deep conversations, easy drinking, plenty of meals, physical exertion, and moments of faux danger. Steven did an incredible job planning and bringing everyone together. He did this while working hundred-hour weeks at his firm, which just goes to show his many talents.

I tend to collect small handfuls of friends in each stage of my life. While I’m not terribly social, I consider the friends I do manage to make more than acquaintances. Most of them live in far-flung places, and I was very happy when five agreed to make the trip to Sacramento this past weekend. The chance to meet up and hang out with old friends was fantastic enough. To do so while camping and rafting down the South Fork American River was gravy, the fattening type that tastes like melted caramel.

Most of us flew in on Friday night and stayed at a musty hotel outside of Sacramento. We arrived late and went to Lyon’s, the west-coast version of Denny’s. It’s always a bit weird when friends from different parts of your life converge at such an event. It was a cross-section of my childhood friends (Steven and Chad), law school friends (Erik and Will) and my brother-in-law (Eran). We ordered greasy food and bottomless French fries, and talked excitedly about our trip.

Erik and Will, my married-with-children friends, explained that my bachelor party was the only reason their wives would let them go away for the weekend. For Erik, this was his first time away from his wife Gloria and their beautiful first baby (a boy), born only a few months ago. It turns out that once you have monsters, life changes, and your opportunities to run off on short notice for beer and manly doings becomes much more difficult.

Well, that may not be completely true. The rafting company provided camping space on their grounds, which we shared with the nice family who followed us in a second boat for our two-day adventure—and we should not measure the danger levels of the trip based on this family’s two children (aged somewhere around seven and nine), who paddled and braved the same rapids as we did. From my perspective, our boat took hard lines through the rapids, while they hugged to the easy waters. And, yes, thinking this does help me sleep better at night.

Besides the nice family, there was another group in the camping grounds: a very large collection of fathers with their second-grade daughters. They rafted the upper part of the river the first day, while we started on the lower. They stayed two nights and rafted one day. At night, they built bicycle walls and sang loud songs. We learned an important lesson: bachelor parties are not the only way men can escape their homes. While I’m sure their wives imagined that their husbands were bonding with their daughters, it turned out the trip provided the men an opportunity to drink beer and hang out with other men. As an example, as we waited for the barbeque dinner to cook, our guides provided everyone with two coolers: one filled with sodas, and the other with beer. As we partook of the latter, we watched as the eight-year old girls snuck into the beer cooler and carried the cans back to their tables. A gaggle of dads sat at the next table, their faces deep in their own cans and oblivious to their daughter’s exploits. It took fatherly Will to stand up and let the girls know that they should not be taking the beer. When we tattled on them, the dads shrugged and laughed. To be fair, they did eventually send an envoy to the girls’ table. And the girls were not exactly drinking the beer. They poured the beer into plastic cups and delivered some of their concoctions to our table. When we asked, they informed us that they were practicing in preparation of poisoning their fathers. We stayed away from their red cups.

We arrived at the campgrounds on Saturday around ten thirty in the morning and began our preparations for the first day’s rafting. We were given the waiver of liability, and even though four of the six people in our group were lawyers, we managed to sign without making a fuss (only partially because of the unenforceability of many of the clauses—terrible lawyer joke, sorry).

A long debate followed, as we had to decide whether to wear the wetsuits we had rented for $25. The guides told us that the water was cold, in the high forties or low fifties. None of us wanted to slip into the tight suits, knowing how uncomfortable and awkward they tended to be. In the end, all of us except Eran went with the wetsuits. Eran decided on a newly purchased water-tight shirt. Personally, I felt like a superhero in my wetsuit, especially the first day when I wore it inside out, with the black on the outside (wearing it right-side in, with the blue on the outside, while perhaps technically more superhero-ey, didn’t feel as super). You’ll have to judge for yourself when you see the photographs.

Speaking of photographs, I should be posting some over the next few weeks. Eran purchased a waterproof film camera, and he’s developing the photos as I write, and promised to send them along for posting. A photography company took photos of our raft as it raced through a few of the rapids. We had a chance to look through some of the photos before leaving, and ordered the bunch. I should receive the CD in about a month and I will post it soon afterwards.

After a safety briefing, our guide Max settled us in the raft and we set sail. Erik and Eran sat in the front and set the pace for our paddling, while our guide in the back ended up doing most of the paddling and navigating. Except when we approached the rapids, our paddles rarely touched the water. It took us a while to realize that Max used our paddling to better attack the more challenging parts of the rapids. If we didn’t paddle, we would float by without the death-defying drops and hairpin turns. As Chad yelled whenever we started paddling towards the rapids (at least during the first day before the Event cost him his nerve), “charge the mountain! Put your back into!” (I’m paraphrasing as Chad is very funny and much cleverer. I miss his constant stream of funny asides and stories.)

Our guide Max was a twenty-four year old Bay-area native, with curly hair, droopy eyes, and a European face. He had spent the past four summers guiding inflatable rafts down the river. Before becoming a guide, applicants pay $600 for “guide school.” If you don’t have the money, your pitiful salary goes toward paying down this debt. Max managed to pay his debt by, among other things, building a hot tub for the owner of the rafting company. A hot tub, I should add, he never even soaked in. Max graduated from Columbia University film school without a clue what to do. He’s an avid outdoorsman, and he survived school by joining the kayaking club. They met twice a week in the pool for practice. What he loves, he later realized, was rafting. He spends approximately six months every year as a guide. He has not applied his film-making skills since graduating. His last film was a river rafting film. He claims he doesn’t have the money to purchase a camera for filming. The reality, of course, is that he found something he loves much more than film making. There’s something to be said about the life of the outdoorsman, whether it be a white-water guide living on a commune, the scuba or ski instructor, or a golf pro. You live a life doing what you love. While you don’t necessarily make large amounts of money, there are fewer days where you regret your choice.

During one of our many deeper conversations, my friends and I sat around discussing our own choices in life. We are successful in different ways, and we all wondered what would have happened if we had made different choices. Steven, for example, is always looking for the next radical turn in his life. I respect his choices. While they have not always worked out, he has taken risks and tried to fulfill his ambitions. After working as a lawyer for a number of years, Steven decided to pursue a dream of working on renewable energy. He made a plan to pay down his credit card debt in the hopes of returning to school. He moved into his brother’s basement, and did just that. He quit his job, and after exploring graduate school, he took a trip to the Far East. While he ended up returning to law, he doesn’t regret his choices. While it’s important to dream, dreams are only the first step. It takes a very strong person to transform their dreams into reality. It takes planning and sacrifice and study. A person grows only through challenge, risk, and adversity. Failure is never an outcome when you do something. It’s always the journey that determines success, not where you end up.

The first part of the river was rather tame. Halfway through the morning, as we approached a slow rapid, Max encouraged us to jump into the white water. He counseled us that the more the fall looked accidental, the more entertaining it would be for those that remained in the boat. Most of us concentrated on not falling in. Only Eran, after a few moments of soul searching, threw himself into the water. Eran is an accomplished swimmer: he was a lifeguard in his younger years, and a certified scuba diver. He is comfortable in the water. As we finished paddling the rapid, I turned around to look for him. He was nowhere to be seen. He was no longer sitting in the front of the boat. The water behind us was empty. It was only when we looked over the side of the raft that we saw him hanging on to the yellow cord that circled the raft.

We pulled him back into the raft, and Chad attempted to claim his second save. Chad had previously informed us that on another rafting trip, he had saved a drowning man—or at least pulled someone back into the boat after they fell and were in danger of drowning. Serious danger as he explained it. It seemed more likely that someone had jumped into the water and was swimming around and needed Chad’s help to return to the raft. It turns out that getting from water into the boat is not easy. The raft is inflatable, and the sides are slick. It is difficult to gain leverage to pull yourself in. The prescribed method is to have someone already in the boat pull the swimmer by the lapels of their lifejacket.

The water was as cold as the guides had warned. In the tamer parts, everyone jumped in. The initial shock did take my breath away. Since I purposefully jumped in—artfully removing my baseball cap before taking the plunge—I was prepared. The wetsuit helped, but I lasted only a few minutes before pulling myself back onto the raft. Max jumped in with a back flip. This was the first trip of the season where he did not wear a wetsuit. Because the water in this river flows from the bottom of a dam, it never truly warms up, even at the end of the summer. There are other rivers where the water turns warm, almost uncomfortably so. Steven, less of a fan of the cold water than most, said he would have preferred it bathwater warm.

We stopped by the side of the river for lunch. The three guides (the second boat had a main guide plus a trainee guide) set up a small table and spent a good twenty minutes laying out the cold cuts and cutting the fruit. This gave us an opportunity to warm up and hang out in the picnic area. The conversation turned to unions, a subject Eran is passionate about. As a real estate developer, he has to deal with the unions in Buffalo. While initially a force for good, Eran believes that unions have outlived their usefulness. (From my family’s perspective, unions treated us well: my mother, a retired NYC teacher, and my father, who worked for the telephone company, raised us on their union pay and benefits.) Eran, with the help of my sister, has done very well for their family. He spent some time explaining the ins and outs of his deals during dinner. Eran is Israeli and quite handy. I have photos of his time in Seattle fixing the Castle as evidence. He also builds and flies airplanes when he’s not taking care of his growing family: four girls, the latest two twins still in their first year. All in all, my two sisters have provided me with six beautiful nieces.

The sandwiches were tasty and we were hungry from our exertions. We chomped on salty goldfish and Fritos as we waited for the guides. I ate cheese and peanut butter sandwiches (separately, thankfully), and pickles on the side, which, for this record, is the only way to properly eat pickles. With our bellies warm, we headed back on the river for the second half of day one. In the morning, when a rapid’s wave first crests over the raft, you are cold. In the afternoon, after lunch, when that first wave finds you again, you freeze. The combination of post-lunch dryness and warm bellies are a recipe for cold.

We were now veterans of the river, having learned Max’s commands: “paddle one” (paddle one time); “paddle two”; “paddle” (keep paddling until); “stop paddling”; “back paddle” (paddle backwards); “turn right” (the right side paddles backwards, the left side forwards); “turn left” (the opposite of right); “left side” (everyone goes to the left side of the boat, used when trying to avoid a rock); and “right side.”

We were ready for a few rapids, and rapids we started to hit. Where the morning was slow and easy, the afternoon was fast and furious. We hit named rapids, like the Meat Grinder, and the Widow Maker (not technically the name, but I did include it to scare the wives). The river was rated class III, where class V is almost un-navigable with an extreme chance of death, and class II is barely white water. Class III was a nice round number, where the age limitation was six or so, which was perfect for us inexperienced (and even the experienced) rafters. It was during one of the afternoon rapids that the Event happened.

We were paddling through a vicious rapid. We were taught to use our paddle as a type of tripod. Our outer foot was wedged into the boat, we were seated on the edge of the raft, and our oar made the third leg of the tripod. If you dug the paddle into the water during the rapids, you were better able to keep your balance and stay in the boat. At least that was the theory. The Event happened as we crested a tall wave. We don’t have an exact measurement, as we were busy trying not to die, but I would estimate we were a good five feet off the water. The front left side of the raft tipped over first, and before we knew it, Eran and Chad were in the water. Erik, who was seated on the right side across from Eran, later told us that he had no recollection of how he moved from the rights side to the left side of the raft.

Both Eran and Chad managed to stay near the raft as it continued down the rapid. As they held on, a large rock found Eran’s tender backside, and smaller rocks bruised Chad’s legs. Steven and Will pulled Chad back onto the boat, and Erik grabbed Eran. I watched from the far side, unable to provide much assistance, as I was on the far back side of the boat. For the rest of the trip, Eran popped many Advil pills in an attempt to dull the ringing in his tailbone. Chad, as I said earlier, lost his killer instinct, and spent parts of the second day rapids huddled in the middle of the boat, cross-legged and hanging on for his life. Named Events can do that to people. While he was hoping to nock a few more saves on his belt, he turned out needing saving.

After the Event, we paddled for a while longer before hitting shore early in the evening. After I peed into a toilet-covered hole in the ground, we loaded the van for a thirty-minute windy drive back to camp. After changing, we opened the cooler Will and Erik had purchased the previous evening before dinner. We popped open beer bottles and went about setting up our tents and sleeping bags. Erik and Will made the right choice, renting both. The guides had set up their tents and sleeping bags, while the rest of us had to fiddle with the poles and camping accoutrements. After we set up camp, we piled wood in the fire pit and Eran used his fancy phosphorous (or something like that) shavings to spark the wood into a cheery camp fire. He learned his outdoor skills from the two survival television shows, where crazy men are dropped into dangerous parts of the world to survive using only their shoelaces and wits. Will’s liberal use of lighter fluid on the pile of wood did help Eran’s fire quite a bit.

As we sat around the fire talking about this and that, Chad told me that he and his wife Corrine occasionally read this site. Chad and I don’t talk much, which I always regretted. After graduating college, Chad went to work for a rental car agency. We used to make fun of him for cleaning cars and driving people around. Chad has an excellent work ethic, and worked his way up through the ranks of his company. Besides working hard, he is very social, funny, and well organized, which is a good combination in corporate America. Chad told me that while they liked my writing, many times they had no idea what I was writing about. Corrine would tell Chad that I had again went off the deep end, clearly overdosing and allowing the caffeine to write the words. They much preferred to read the entries about my doings. I guess that’s part of where this overly long entry came from. Perhaps I have been focusing too much on fictional storytelling, and not enough journaling the more noteworthy moments and thoughts in my life.

We sat on the picnic benches and Chad’s folding chairs and sucked from the bottles. Crickets chirped from around the fire pit, and we watched as the sky darkened, and the crescent moon rose. Venus appeared a few degrees below the moon, heralding the arrival of the star-filled heavens. The Big Dipper ascended and we spoke about small and large things, content to breathe deeply the smoke-filled river air.

Max found us in camp and led us to the eating area for happy hour. A cooler of beer, and carrots and chips with dip awaited us. We sat around a large picnic table and continued our conversation while the guides cooked beef, chicken, and fish on a lopsided cast-iron barbeque, the grill held up by chains, which they raised and lowered away from the charcoal with oversized wheels, which provided it the ominous look of an ancient torture device. The guides turned chefs prepared a myriad of side dishes and cooked chocolate brownies in large pots by placing hot charcoal pieces over the pots’ cover.

We spoke about how everyone dealt with their spouses, and what I should expect from married life. Everyone provided advice and took turns grabbing refills from the cooler. Erik, the new dad, explained how his life changed with his child. He seemed wiser than the last time I saw him. I asked about how his brainwashing was coming along. I’m convinced that new babies release a hormone that causes their parents to dote on them. It’s either that or they are, somehow, innately loveable. Erik is another friend in a transition point in his life. He has worked for large corporations, started his own business, and returned to work for a large firm when his business was purchased. Now he’s exploring returning to school for a drastic change away from tax advice to computer science. As a recovering computer scientist, I have nothing but good things to say about the profession. I sometimes wonder whether I have the guts to make such a move.

By the time the rafting guides banged the dinner triangle, we were starving. We grabbed our plates, pushed the eight-year olds out of our way, and piled meat and fish on our plates. I selected the tinfoil salmon, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, and a few grabs of a side salad, cognizant that, as Homer Simpson taught, one does not make friends with salad.

We returned to the table and the conversation moved to my decision to eat Kosher food. I don’t proselytize much about my religious decisions, but I do try to explain. I always hedge my bets by explaining that I’m still experimenting. After some prompting, I delved into what I found intriguing about Judaism. Chad, in particular, was more interested in why I ate Kosher, as he told me he subscribed to the Delicious religion: if food is delicious, he eats it. I explained that eating Kosher is only one small aspect of the religion, and I don’t have a good reason to follow it but for what I find interesting about Judaism itself. We discussed my religious philosophy for some time. I won’t bore you with the details (I figure I bored the guys enough already).

I did learn an important thing about myself; actually, a few important things. If nothing else, religion provides me an opportunity to stretch my philosophy muscles. In college, I would sit around with my friends and talk about all matters of philosophy and religion. I realized that exploring Judaism provides me with similar opportunities. But that wasn’t the only thing. As I explained that I was experimenting with praying in the mornings, Eran added that he has been wrapping tefillin a few mornings a week. This is where I realized something terrible about myself: one of the reasons I enjoy my Judaism experimentation is that I like feeling special. I enjoy it when I tell others of my accomplishment, and lose some of that joy when it turns out others are exploring and learning as well. I know it is a terrible thing to say, but I like to feel special. I like to stand out as different. It is, of course, an ego thing, and something I am trying to quell. In my tipsy state, as I eloquently explained my philosophy by repeating some of my rabbi and book’s teachings, I realized this terrible truth about myself. I look at it as just another opportunity to grow. When you start as low as I did, the opportunities are truly plentiful.

After long and wonderful conversations, we retired back to camp where we added more wood to the fire. We sat around and talked before zipping ourselves into our tents and calling it a night. We woke early to a damp morning. It took us many attempts to relight the fire. Luckily, while it was chilly in the morning, the fire was not absolutely necessary. There was no risk of hypothermia—interesting fact from Max: if the water temperature plus the air temperature is greater than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, then there is no risk of hypothermia. Below that, there is a risk. Luckily for us, it was in the seventies and eighties both days, with the water in the low fifties.

We ate breakfast at the eating area and watched the fathers and daughters pack up their tents. We reluctantly pulled back on our wetsuits, which had not dried completely over the chilly night. We packed up our tents and bags, and left them in our cars. We met Max for a thirty-minute van ride to the start of our second day’s rafting. Unlike Saturday, the rafting on Sunday started very fast, and slowed after one last large rapid after lunch. The last hour we spent lazily paddling down the river. Will and I switched places with Erik and Eran. The front of the raft provides a much better view at the cost of more work. I also learned that it is very difficult to hear Max when paddling in the rapids. I had thought that Erik and Eran were slightly deaf from their performance on Saturday. I quickly learned the error of my ways.

After lunch, Will and I offered the front seat to Steven and Chad. They turned us down, quite content to remain in the middle of the raft. The air was a bit colder in the afternoon, and each wave that crested over the raft edged me closer to the middle of the raft in an unsuccessful attempt to get away from the cold water. I tried to lean forward and into the waves, hoping to miss the splash. I never did master that technique. By early afternoon, our rafting trip was finished. We ended up at the camp, and helped the guides carry the rafts up the hill. We showered and changed and prepared for the airport.

Chad lives outside of San Jose, and drove a SUV down to the site. He brought Steven and Eran to the airport. Both had red-eye flights leaving at midnight. Since we finished around two, they had ten hours to kill before their flight, which again shows their dedication in joining me on this trip. I went with Will and Erik, who had rented a car. Will drove us to the airport. Will is one of the few lawyers I know who has always enjoyed being a lawyer. While I have found contentment in my career over the past few years, Will left law school (and probably even went into law school) knowing he wanted to be a lawyer. He became a litigator and while switching firms once, he seems very content with his choices. Even in law school, Will was a very good student. He studied with determination and the knowledge that he was preparing for a job he would love. I very much respect that. For most of us, it takes a very long time to find pleasure in work. Some people, regrettably, never find much pleasure in what they do.

We dropped off the rental car at the airport and I parted ways with Erik and Will on the bus carrying us to the terminals. I tried to get on an earlier flight to Seattle, but was turned away. I spent the time catching up on reading and speaking to the Doolies.

Doolies finally reached me at the airport. A conspiracy theory had been running through her head over the weekend. She thought the guys had convinced me to leave my cell phone off during the trip. That since this was my bachelor party and last hurrah, I should celebrate by not talking to the Doolies. While that would have been very funny and probably a good idea, the truth was that this conversation occurred only in Doolies’s head. While the other guys were able to call home during the weekend, my cell phone did not receive a signal at the camp. My cellular provider, which has good coverage in Seattle, does not have as good coverage in California. Since I do not have a phone card to call Taiwan and must wait for her to call me, I could not borrow one of the guy’s phones.

I told her of my weekend, and she told me of her Taiwan doings. I promised to write this entry to give her a more detailed look into my wonderful weekend. While not as crazy as other bachelor parties (what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas—or something silly like that), as I said earlier, it was exactly what I wanted. Proper and yet disgustingly fun. I again wanted to thank everyone who made the trip. I wish I could do this every year.

And since I won’t have the photographs for a few weeks, I’ll leave you with my rendition of the men-overboard Event of the rafting trip. (This will be posted again when it comes up in the rotation for the front page.)

That first step is a doozy

Top, from left to right: Will, Chad (overboard, bruised legs), Eran (overboard, bruised buttocks). Bottom, from left to right: Me, Steven, Erik.

See my other Cast of Horribles to gain context on my weird doodles.

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