Cosas Nuevas

Dr. Sarah Marie Story
12 min readOct 11, 2022

I’ve never met an international raccoon.

I don’t know why the family of raccoons in Costa Rica waddling across the floor of the open-air restaurant enchanted me so much. I’ve been places! I’ve cuddled koalas in Australia, swam with sharks in South Africa, dodged rats in the alleys of Paris and Rome, and encountered enough Caribbean lizard monsters for a lifetime. I once opened my eyes during a poolside nap in Key West, FL to come face-to-face with a fat iguana eating my french fries. And yet, here I was giggling about these normal, everyday raccoons. They looked just like raccoons back in Kansas City, home in California, or any other place in the US where trash-pandas might be able to get into a garbage pail.

I think it was the ordinariness of their faces set against the backdrop of a Costa Rican bar and grill that jolted me a bit. Here I was at 41 years old eating a giant plate of nachos in my bathing suit, 2000 miles away from home, sitting next to my new husband, turning to Google Translate to look up the Spanish word for raccoon. What is this life?

Mapache. This is how you say raccoon. This is a word I will never forget, even if after four decades on earth in a Mexican family, growing up surrounded by the Spanish language, I keep forgetting how to order food.

Were the mapaches a symbol of where I was from, coming to Central America as some sort of heavenly ambassador to cheer me on with all the newness in my life? Or, were they just mapaches being mapaches, snuffling around the sandy tile floor waiting for me to inevitably drop a nacho?

This week is my last week at my current job. Next week, I start a new position with a new company. Four weeks ago, I got married. I’ve got a new name, and next week I’ll have a new title, a new email address, and new systems to navigate. I’m reaping the harvest of a cultivation season, but it’s coming on fast and furious.

Two weeks ago, on my honeymoon, I learned how to surf for the first time in my life. I know this may be hard to believe, but not all Californians–even those who spend a significant amount of time at the beach–know how to surf. In my imagination, I was good at it. I felt like there was a surfer deep down in my soul just waiting to come out.

I’m not being dramatic (well, yes I am…but not THAT dramatic) when I tell you that my life will now be divided into two parts: before and after surf school. It’s not because of the surfing, persay, but the process of learning to surf. I came back ready for new adventures, because–NEWS FLASH–surfing is hard. It’s a lot of work for a little bit of glorious payoff; it’s a culture and a vibe; it’s a pursuit with so much out of your control; it’s beautiful and irritating and can make you feel small and then two minutes later make you feel like the most powerful warrior-queen on earth.

Eight days of surfing prepared me to step into a new season, and I think there are lessons here for anyone transitioning into something exciting/scary. So, here are five things learning to surf taught me about starting new things.

Drill the fundamentals.

Face it, when you spend years at the same job, some things become muscle memory. Even when new challenges arise, your body starts to shift into autopilot and the basics of the job become natural. For example, over the last four years, I’ve given hundreds of demos of mySidewalk products. I could do the demo with my eyes closed, if the screen share doesn’t work, or if I could only use words that start with “a”. It’s a part of me now, and so the tendency is to just keep doing what I’m doing — “if it ain’t broke”… etc.

While this mindset is common, it’s not good. It wasn’t until we started using new software that leverages AI to dissect calls that I started to see huge opportunities for growth. I talked too much, my monologues were too long, and I didn’t allow for thoughtful silence. Little things, measured in fractions of a second, made a big difference.

Some days after surf lessons, we took strength classes where we popped up onto the board a dozen times in a row. The placement of our hands, the way our feet were angled, and the speed (again, measured in fractions of a second) all mattered and deserved intense focus. It wasn’t as fun as being in the water, but it was foundational to growth. When I saw myself in video analyses with our coach, I was embarrassed by the dumb mistakes I was making, even if I did catch the wave. Winning by cutting corners isn’t really winning, it’s just luck.

Ditch that inherited fear.

Growing up on the Pacific Ocean instilled in me a deep respect for the power of the water. This respect morphed into a fear that erected a mental barrier every time I tried to swim into the ocean past my waist. A calm, warm Miami ocean I could handle. A churning, foamy California ocean I could not. I don’t remember any of my family being ocean swimmers. We preferred to cool off at a thigh-high level and then work on our SPF 2 tans and eat nachos. (Again with the nachos — so much is making sense now!) As I got older and started taking my own kids to the beaches I grew up on, they were the only kids wearing life jackets even after they became strong swimmers.

Part of wanting to learn to surf was really about wanting to overcome this fear. But, it wasn’t pretty. I cried often. The first few times I got thrown in the washing machine, I panicked. I didn’t know which way was up. I was disoriented. I was afraid of coming up for air and getting whacked with my own surfboard.

When I think about my new job, the familiar ocean panic starts to bubble up inside me. I’m taking on something bigger and scarier. I’m going to have to rely on my creative talents in new ways. I don’t know what’s coming, whether I will succeed, whether people will regret hiring me. Will I come up for air and get whacked with my own proverbial surfboard?

When I was a theater nerd in my younger years, I loved the concept of “taking a beat”. When my character had to take a beat… boy, did I TAKE THAT BEAT. I loved the pause, the assessment, and the reaction. Taking a beat is taking a breath, taking your moment, and then saying your line. I thought of this while I was battling the break to get to calmer waters. When I was being tossed around underwater, I didn’t fight it. I stayed still, trusted my training, and reacted accordingly. I followed the bubbles and covered my head, breaking through to the sunshine to try it all again. My big fears are unfounded, but this doesn’t mean the washing machine won’t come. I’m not a fraud–I’m talented, I’m capable and I’m qualified. Breakthrough will come when I let go of the fear and take a hot second to react.

Assess the situation.

During one of our surfing seminars (yes, we had classroom work on my honeymoon, and no, that should not surprise you if you know me) the instructor said something that hit me hard. He said that for the first 10–15 minutes of surfing, you should just stand on the beach and stare at the waves. This immediately brought to mind that feeling when you get to a big party or event, when you sip your club soda and stand against the wall and watch the way people move. You observe the way they interact, the way they watch the door for someone more interesting to come in, whether they shake hands or bump elbows or hug. You pick up all the said and unsaid rules of engagement so you can wade into the party-waters without wiping out.

By watching the waves, you’re watching the unique culture of the ocean that morning. You watch for the obvious signs of rip currents. You count the tempo of the waves and the way they stack on top of each other. You assess the vibe of the other surfers — are they experienced locals or beginners like you? Is there someone out there with something to prove? Is there anyone who looks like they are having the time of their life? Who should you avoid and who should you emulate?

We’ve all known people who crash into a new workplace without standing on the shore for 10 minutes. We’ve probably been that person once or twice. I know I have. This time around, I’m more seasoned. I look for signs of culture–whether meetings start on time, or five minutes late. Whether people answer their Slack at 7 am, whether they talk about their families, and how they handle uncomfortable feedback — these are just a few of those rhythms that we need to understand before we start flailing about in the ocean. Nobody gets to a new surf spot and says “well, the last ocean I was in was like THIS and so I’m gonna just surf like I did in the last ocean and assume the ocean will bend to my needs.”

You can’t bend the ocean, dummy. You have to adapt.

Humble yourself.

Nothing says “look out for this surfing virgin” like a giant foam surfboard. But, this is what I had to learn on for the first few days. This really messed with the image I had mentally constructed for myself — a strong, powerful woman with salty hair hauling her gorgeous legitimate board across the sand like I was starring in a tampon commercial. Instead, I was dragging this irritatingly large foam monstrosity that immediately broke one of my manicured nails. The humility kept flowing when I graduated from the relative ease of the stable, light foam board to the real board I dreamt of. Everything I felt I mastered was weakened, and my confidence was shot. I was a victim of comparison, too, watching other beginners seem to fly to the lineup while I was still back with the children and the elderly in the churn. I was told often that week to focus on my own wave, no one else’s. Still, it stung.

While surfing is obviously humbling, the more humbling part of the trip happened outside the ocean. On top of wanting to learn to surf, I also wanted to work on my Spanish. I’ve always felt like an imposter Mexican. I took French in high school and college, enamored by Parisian dreams. I just assumed because of Spanish exposure and genetics, I had it in me. Five years prior I had argued with a bouncer in Cuba in Spanish that had seemed to arise out of a buried part of my soul, so I figured it would just flow.

It did not.

The worst part is that my accent is pretty solid. So the handful of words I did know sounded great, leading the recipient to assume that I was one of the many bilingual expats that live in the town. I patted myself on the back for ordering two ice cream cones in Spanish, only to stare stupidly at the cashier as she talked for at least one minute about something vaguely ice cream related. I could not even remember how to say “my Spanish is not good” or “speak more slowly please”. At the end of her soliloquy, I picked up the word tarjeta and handed over my credit card with a dumb smile on my face.

So, I started asking a ton of questions. I asked friendly waiters how to say I wanted to take food to-go. I asked the pharmacist how to say hydrocortisone. I made the lady who sold me bananas repeat the price slowly so I could hear the difference clearly between 60 and 600. I was OK looking like I didn’t know what I was doing, because I truly didn’t know what I was doing.

I know that I walked into those situations with an immense privilege, though. I was clearly a visitor from somewhere else (my ambiguous face led quite a few people to believe I was Eastern European), here for vacation. My humility was endearing, which is not always the case in professional situations for underrepresented folks. I get that. But I do believe that asking questions in a new situation shouldn’t make anybody feel less-than. In a perfect professional world, our gender or skin color wouldn’t make question-asking feel so terrifying. I commit not only to humbling myself by asking questions as I move into a new position, but also providing a safe space for others to ask questions too without fear or shame. I hope you’ll join me.

Pura Vida.

I thought Pura Vida was a marketing term used only by the Costa Rican tourism board. I quickly found out that I was wrong when I heard the phrase no less than five times before we even left the airport. They use it as a hello and a goodbye, and pepper it throughout conversations. It took me a few days to work up the courage to use it like a local would, for fear of sounding like one of the many study-abroad kids in town huddled together having their first legal beers.

The basic translation of Pura Vida is “simple life” or “pure life”. What struck my heartstrings most was the application of this concept to a greeting and a farewell. The same phrase, meant to remind us that life can be beautiful, is used for the new beginnings and the potentially sad endings. The duality of it all is almost too much for me to understand.

In the book “Less”, the narrator says:

“We all recognize grief in moments that should be celebrations; it is the salt in the pudding. Didn’t Roman generals hire slaves to march beside them in a triumphant parade and remind them that they too would die? Even your narrator, one morning after what should have been a happy occasion, was found shivering at the end of the bed (spouse: “I really wish you weren’t crying right now”). Don’t little children, awakened one morning and told, “Now you’re five!” — don’t they wail at the universe’s descent into chaos?”

The salt in the pudding — the little bit of something contradictory buried in something so sweet. A “hello” to a new opportunity is a “goodbye” to the place you leave behind. My fourth birthday celebration was interrupted by a crying jag in the kitchen when I realized that one day I would be 40 and ancient. Life is simple and complex in all of the moments all at once. It’s ok to be excited and sad; frustrated with your body’s inability to stay upright, but smiling all the same; irritated with your husband and head over heels in love; as Jess Sims would say, a masterpiece and a work in progress at the same damn time.

Maybe the mapaches were the salt in the pudding. Their little masked faces were a reminder of home in a foreign place, recalling my never-ending battle against their ability to break into a locked trash can and find my garbage. They were a tiny sprinkle of normal in a surreal moment.

I can’t predict what the waves will look like in the morning. I can’t control the tides. I can’t say with 100% certainty that I will crush this new job, that I will be the best wife of all time, or that I will fulfill every dream on my wish list before I ascend to that great ocean in the sky. I can, however, recognize the deep lessons in the seemingly simple and keep working on my core strength (metaphorically and literally) to prepare me for the next challenge. I can keep dreaming bigger, facing my fears, and living vulnerably without obsessing over how others perceive me.

Most of all, I can hold on to the fact that none of the blessings in my life right now were things I ever thought I had coming. If I couldn’t predict this happiness, why do I insist on constraining possibilities for the future? Fear is the rip current that sits below the calm surface, ready to float me all the way to Panama if I let it. But I won’t let it. I won’t win by thrashing and fighting, I’ll win by working with it.

Mapaches don’t worry about tomorrow — they know that nacho is gonna hit the floor eventually.

Maybe we should all be more like that.

PS: If you also want to get enlightened at surf camp, 10/10 recommend Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo 🙂

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Dr. Sarah Marie Story

Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, reader/writer/runner/eater