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OF COURSE there’s no real intellectual defense of the word “stoked.” But in a quick response to Esquire blogger Stacey Woods’ inclusion of “being stoked” in her list of things we need to leave behind this year, I just wanted to mention a few things about the “state of stoke.”
Like all terms that enter the mainstream vernacular, the original meaning gets diluted, co-opted, commodified. In that sense maybe it is a good thing to let this term die out, to give it back to us, the surfers, skaters, snowboarders, kayakers. People running the gnar!
The rest of y’all are tourists anyway. We’re stoked to mute-air over your heads when you’re visiting our slopes for your once-a-year ski trips. Yowwh!!
Or actually, no. That isn’t it at all.
I agree almost down the line with Stacey’s list. “Being all ghetto,” “giving the namaste to the dry cleaner,” reducing a woman down to “strong, amazing.” Basically it’s a call to give up insincerity.
But the act of “being stoked”–at least as I’ve always felt it–is just the opposite.
The etymology of “stoke” goes back to the 17th century Dutch stoker, meaning to ram or thrust material into a fire. Few other emotions are associated with such a tightly-fitting metaphor. When you get stoked for the first time surfing—say standing up on your first wave—there is a sense that you’ve suddenly entered, or been propelled into, a new realm, a kind of foundry or training ground that you couldn’t access before, something you’re intimidated by, something totally inaccessible in fact, without sacrifice.
Its usage for describing “rousing” emotions has been traced back to the turn of the 20th century, with the earliest recorded usage as surf slang—where the modern “stoked” arises—in the early 1950s.
Getting back to the fire metaphor, with surfing, and with all real stoke, there’s a sense of giving. It’s akin to “paying dues.” You paddle out, you get beaten down over and over. You fail. You look like a kook.
And then slowly, you get over it. You allow yourself to fail. You allow yourself to be a kook. And after enough humiliation, enough putting yourself out there in the waves, enough “giving,” you finally find yourself in the right place to catch a wave. There’s always been this feeling of paddling, paddling, paddling. Digging. And then suddenly it’s like you’re accelerating forward down the face. The power of the wave is working for you, giving back after so long.
And then of course you fall down. You’ve got months to go, years maybe, before you can pump your board up and down the line, to carve like the rippers you see out there .
But you realize something. You can suddenly “see” a little bit of it all. When the board started accelerating down the face, it wasn’t just the experience of that glide and flow itself, but a kind of window into the future. A sense of what could be possible.
And you’re just stoked. Appreciative of this time you put into it, even though it was 4,000 paddle strokes for 4 seconds of standing up. Maybe you were lucky enough to have a mentor out there, a friend who told you “the best surfer is the one having the most fun.”
And just then, after catching that ride, you were the best surfer out there.
Amigos y amigas: It doesn’t have to be surfing. It’s whatever it is you truly give yourself to. That book manuscript you started last year but let other shit get in the way. Those songs you wanted to record. Your relationship with your partner, your health, your finances. Those travels you promised yourself, your family. Follow Stacey’s list, right on. Give up all the insincere bullshit. It’s ok not to chillax.
But whatever you do, keep paddling. Keep trying to catch waves. This is your year to get stoked.