1: KID TREASURES
The severity of my problem didn't dawn on me until my brother took a cold, hard look at my garage. With our first baby on the way, my wife had asked me to organize the man cave, to make room for strollers and car seats. She knew better than to ask me to get rid of any surfboards--41 at last count, not including those stashed in Chile, Indo, SoCal, and up north. My wife asked me instead to sort through the wall of boxes that had recently been displaced from my childhood home. I'd been putting it off for months, despite the enticing labels scribbled on boxes in Sharpie--"Surf Journals, High School," and "Kid Treasures." I knew of Pandora. I knew from years of practice that ignorance can be bliss.
Then one winter day, I cracked a beer and lifted a lid, and found myself sucked in by the talismans and artifacts of my formative surfing years: webbed gloves, warranty tags from my first Victory wetsuit, stacks of journals detailing each session, wave-by-wave, from 1990 onward. Instead of purging and moving on, I began to nest. I organized my '80s back issues of SURFER on a shelf. I plugged in my boombox and sorted and stacked cassette tapes. When I unearthed the pile of surf posters that once decorated my walls, I began putting them up behind the board rack, along with my Hendrix posters and old sunburnt photos. I felt not just a twinge of nostalgia--I felt content, at home in a way I hadn't in a long time.
Then my brother came over, took one look, and asked me why the fuck I had re-created my childhood bedroom in the garage.
It seemed like a valid question--one my wife was too kind to ask me. There I was 35 years old, and still so obsessed with surfing that I feared my daughter's birth would coincide with an epic swell. Beneath the nuclear family façade I felt very much a child, who was about to have a child himself. Hell, I was hiding out in my re-created childhood room, reading faded surf mags while my wife read baby books upstairs. Honest truth: I'd managed to grow older without ever growing up...and I suspected it was my devotion to surfing that infantilized me.
2: CHILDISH ACTS
Once, when our passion was young, surfing was considered a childish act--a thing of whimsy, like catching fireflies or playing Go Fish. Then surfers just kept on surfing as they grew into middle age. But this merely represented an extended adolescence, no more admirable than a gamer living with mom at 30. When I began the journey, being a surfer was synonymous with being a burnout. As the globe became dotted with ostensibly responsible adult surfers who balanced family, career, and water-time, surfing's reputation changed. The Sport of Kings became known and generally well-regarded as an actual adult activity, like playing golf or doing yoga.
But where grownups saw upstanding citizen-surfers, I saw weekend warriors. I dismissed these surfer-adults (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) as kooks, or good surfers who were slowly becoming kooks due to how little they got to surf. The rest of us, who happen to have "lives" but are still mad about surfing, are merely trying to fool loved ones into thinking we are responsible adults. Really, we are children facing a wall. We are standing at the base of it, dripping wet, sand in our hair, salt drying on our skin. We are unkempt and dry-eyed, happy and peaceful, looking up in awe at that big obstacle we've yet to climb over, wondering about the mysterious land called "adulthood" that lies unseen on the other side.
3: DAYS GO BY
You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful wife? And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? The days go by, and it's no longer 1986, I am no longer 10 years old, subscribing to SURFER Magazine for the first time, obsessing over Curren's bottom turns while listening to Talking Heads. Our first American ASP World Champion took hold of my pre-teen mind in a way that my cartoon heroes--Scooby Doo, Optimus Prime, Inspector Gadget--never had.
Even my plain-clothes heroes--Albert Einstein, Bill Murray, Kurt Vonnegut, Bob Dylan--did not move me the way Tom Curren did. I literally dreamed of surfing with Tom as a child, just as I dreamed of seeing a ghost in my bedroom, and being able to call Ghostbusters, and have Egon and Venkman launch proton packs into my attic. I did the things kids do, and adults don't: drew cartoon surfers on my binder, along with tail templates and the cover art of Led Zeppelin, spent an entire day at the beach in my wetsuit, built sandcastles between sessions, believed that surfing better would somehow make me a better person.
After 25-odd years wasted in the water, I am still reeling from the sheer joy of being young and falling in love with surfing. To be immature and a surfer is to be infinitely lucky. As an introspective kid who immersed himself in books and toys and fantasy, I rarely felt obliged to insert myself into the real world. And then came surfing--and I was out there, and suddenly unafraid, even though little things like walking to the deli counter alone still terrified me. My obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of The Rings and Star Wars meant my mind was prepped to view life in gothic, romantic, struggle-for-survival terms. I felt like Frodo, suddenly thrust into a new world, surrounded by great beauty and great danger.
4: BORDERING MORDOR
Northern California's rugged, desolate reef peaks took on the grandeur of the Mountains of Shadow, a wasteland of darkness on the edge of Mordor. I was no longer playing make-believe with Star Wars action figures, using a Chinese paper lantern as my Death Star. Instead, I put myself gleefully in peril, pushing farther and farther into littoral zones that tourists and family members justifiably saw as life-threatening. After all, beachcombers were swept off rocks every year to their deaths, and even local fishermen caught in high swells sometimes never returned to shore. But I was undaunted. From the very beginning, I was convinced that an angry sea could be placated by knowledge and devotion, convinced that if I loved surfing enough, and paid enough attention, nothing bad would happen to me. In short, I was convinced I was the hero of my own quest.
But all quests must come to an end. What does it mean to let surfing remain the central focus of your adult life? Does it have to do with riding waves, or does it have to do with warped priorities? In America, at least, a good citizen prioritizes success over everything else, and success is invariably defined financially. There are more than a few ways to get there, of course. You can go into banking, or law, and basically dedicate your life's energies to learning how to navigate corporate cultures, which invariably celebrate ethics, but reward criminality (at least criminality in which money is fleeced from everyday Americans who are too stupid to understand corporations are out to fleece them). Or you can be a youthful tech visionary, and use a set of skills that nearly preclude social intelligence to build interfaces that tell less intelligent Americans how to socialize with each other. Or you can simply become famous for the sake of wanting to be famous, as long as you want fame badly enough to reshape your body for it, with a barrage of scalpels, injectable bacteria-created toxins, and bulimic purges. To be a real surfer means that you have rejected these concepts of financial success, deciding instead that success is dictated by how many waves you have caught, how hard you rip, and how awesome your quiver is.
5: THE WAITING ROOM
So we've got one thing right, and that's a start. We've decided to give the middle finger to the man, live by our own rules, and prioritize happiness over riches. The trouble is, what we dedicate ourselves to instead is Dionysian at best. Surfing is pure hedonism. Instead of doing something of lasting import in the world, instead of leaving any kind of legacy, intellectual or otherwise, we're simply dancing to the band on the face of the waters as the Titanic slowly sinks around us. We have chosen to drink, and shred, and laugh, and lie on tropical beaches with our skin warmly drying in the breeze as melanomas are birthed on us.
I remember a lunch on Sloat Street, years ago, during which Matt Warshaw explained to me that surfing is a selfish, useless act, on par with masturbation. I sat there, across the greasy table from my elder, wondering at his obvious and shameful theory. I'd already dedicated 20 years of my life to surfing. And the foremost historian of my sport, the knowledge holder, after years of research, decades spent living and examining the surfing lifestyle, had come to this unfortunate conclusion: Surfing was a waiting room, a time in your life no more permanent than climax, in which you hold fast to happiness and delight before sadly sinking back down onto the truth, that life is sadder and more meaningful than our playtime. Life is doled out in a series of tragic moments, and beautiful ones, most shared between two people. These insights are not earned in the water, unless something horrible happens there. Otherwise, I fear, we learn little of lasting value.
Even if this is true--even if Warshaw and those guidance counselors are right: goddamned if it hasn't been a good ride. Largely, the ocean has been good to me, as I believed it would, steering me from joyful moment to near-tragedy to joyful moment. I've made it to 35--marriage, kid, house, car, a garage full of kick-ass stuff. I've seen people I loved die, but surfing has always been there for me. I've kept with it even as countless friends have quit and moved past waves--lost to jobs, drugs, wives, happiness, criminal convictions, lost to heartbreak at how fucking lame surfing has become. Meanwhile, I've kept riding waves, despite contracts and commitments, despite watching friends be attacked by white sharks in front of me. I didn't question my faith.
6: FACING THE WALL
Lately I've felt the wall's presence. I'm surfing as well as I ever did, and loving it again as much as before, just as I find great solace in organizing my surfboards and magazines in my man cave. But I know it's a selfish act. I can see it plain as day, there in front of me, when my infant daughter smiles in surprised delight when she sees me. She's surprised because, compared to her mother, she sees me infrequently. They are without me as I stand there in parking lots, waiting for the wind to switch. Compare that to watching my daughter in the bath, understanding for the first time that air is a different thing than water, trying in vain to feel the hard border between these two new elements with her miniature fingers.
That's when the Wall seems real, and I wonder about the things I might have accomplished if I'd been strong enough to walk away from surfing for a couple years, or months, or even one honest 40-hour workweek. Spending more time with my family is just one facet of a more complete adult life I've never embraced. The rest is simple stuff: selfless acts, clear decision-making, a sense that you've challenged yourself to accomplish the things you know you can achieve. Instead I'm out there, lost in the foothills of Mount Doom, growing old as the quest goes on, too scared to throw the One Ring into the chasm of fire.
I've traveled far from my Northern California shire, and seen many things. Full moon swells at Desert Point, solo sessions as the light dims at Teahupoo--I've even seen my childhood hero, Tom Curren, salute me with a wave as I exited a high-line barrel at Outside Corner Uluwatu. Yet I'm reluctant to let the story move on without me, even though I know deep inside that there's so much else I want to do, and that my love for surfing is preventing me from doing it. I can see the lines around my eyes these days as easily as I can see the line I want to draw on a dumping overhead left. Time passes, and I know the dance will be over, someday, and I'll be left marveling at just how far I must have traveled across the faces of waves, without ever getting anywhere. Just another life in the cycle, amid the pelicans in cold offshore winds, white sharks below building swells--a grain of sand rolled out and then back in again with the tide. Perhaps the wall is breached, and adulthood achieved, when one realizes that, in the end, that is all any of us are. I might as well climb over sooner rather than later. I'll plan the ascent after I see the next swell forecast.