Once upon a time I wanted to pitch for the Dodgers.
I wasn’t into surfing quite yet — as much as my dad had dragged me along with him — but he respected America’s favorite pastime so he’d squat down behind home plate in the hot Hawaiian sun and I’d wing 40 mph fifth-grader fastballs at him until he faked that his hand hurt through his mitt. By seventh grade I started surfing and didn’t even make it through the season. There was actually an afternoon after school where my dad asked me, Practice…or the beach? and I literally looked at the glove and then my 5’2” and I never went to another practice again. Dad couldn’t have been prouder.
Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Freedom to reject is the only freedom.” There is something equally sacred in teaching a child to disobey rules as there is in teaching him to follow them. There is a certain growth in letting go of things you’re supposed to hold on to.
Bottom line, I chose to surf instead. It was a choice that would become the first of many “instead”s. Heading into high school, the list of shit I’d rather surf instead of doing was endless. Absolutely everything, every thought, every choice I’d ever make since ditching the glove hinged upon this new obsession. Everything else became tentative. In high school, dry land became a complex waiting room until the water. Going to prom, getting a girlfriend, keeping the faith, losing my virginity…these were all obligations that required tedious scheduling and attention, and plain got in the way of my relationship with the ocean. Back then, it was all instead of surfing.
When it was time to apply to college, I applied to just one. The University of Hawaii was just 45 minutes from the North Shore if you were speeding. And it didn’t stop there. That first semester I stacked the minimal amount of credits for a full-time student (12 credits per four courses) into Tuesday/Thursday classes and had four-day weekends for five months straight. The following semesters were more of the same. On M-W-F classes, I figured out ways to start classes by 9:30 (to surf before) and end by 4 (to surf after). What courses I was cramming into those awkward hours did not matter. Tropical Horticulture 101 at 1:30 p.m.? That fits!
I remember the first time I woke up next to a beautiful girl that year, the sunlight spilling into the room through the jalousies, and I actually felt like a sellout to myself. Why? Because it’d be 9:00 a.m. soon and the winds would be blown. I was losing a part of myself.
By not surfing instead.
One would think all this anxious rescheduling and psychotic life-rearranging would be terribly exhausting. But it’s actually not. It just becomes innate. The addiction infects every inch of your being, every strain of your DNA, and you are always half-there with everyone…until you are fully there in the water. You are partially you before surfing, fully you during and then slowly disintegrating until the next surf.
And you could say we’re all part of the same “tribe,” some groovy counterculture of people — but I think it’s something far more personal than a clubhouse. Something more intrinsic and involuntary. Call it commitment. Call it devotion. I can’t help that I love this more than you.
But were all the choices worth it? All those dismissals and skip-outs and I’ll-passes, to go surfing instead? I know I’m not the only one on this. Who else will validate all the things in life I’ve rejected? –Beau Flemister
*Part 1 of 5 from the “I Surfed Instead” cover feature essay