Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Ecstasy of Surfing

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Ecstasy of Surfing

Article excerpt

How a mid-30s revival of a childhood habit set about saving me once more.

When I was 8, my parents divorced and my mother married a man whose career took us from Washington to Melbourne Beach, a town on the "Space Coast" of Central Florida, where I learned to surf.

The ocean proved a refuge from the new, volatile atmosphere at home. Surfing became my everything, with all matters weighed on the scales of its rigors and ecstasies. The surfers of Melbourne Beach made up a kind of tribal family. There was a tradition of taking a job as soon as possible, for instance, typically as a busboy or carpenter's assistant. The point was to have pocket money and financing for trips to surf destinations like Barbados and Costa Rica. But underlying these expediencies was a belief, transmitted to me by the older boys who were my idols, in the nobility of labor. Working with your hands and living close to the land -- or in this case, the sea -- were the cardinal virtues.

But this surf family broke up, too -- my idols left for college or California or Hawaii. A friend was wheelchair-bound after falling from a scaffold. And when it came time to attend the university where my father taught, back in Washington, I quit surfing as if I were quitting a drug. I was afraid that it would fatally distract me from my studies, and I didn't want to be an occasional surfer. If I couldn't do it every day, couldn't reasonably aspire to be one of the best, then I wouldn't do it all. I had always assumed I would make the pilgrimage to Hawaii, the birthplace of modern surfing, but this was a dream I would have to relinquish.

So I plunged into a life of books and cities, bars and galleries, endless graduate school. Of my previous life, I rarely spoke. There were too many cliches about surfing and surfers to overcome.

Then unexpectedly, when I was in my mid-30s and living in New York, I took up surfing again. And as though I never abandoned it, surfing set about saving me once more, this time from bad habits accrued in adulthood. I could now afford to take the trips I never managed to save enough for as a teenager -- to Puerto Rico, Mexico and, ultimately, Hawaii, where my girlfriend, Juliana, and I went to be married. …

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