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Barbarian Days, William Finnegan

"I continued to doubt. But I was not afraid. I just didn't want this to end."


"But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sports I knew. You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big, or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anyone around."

p. 18

"Hawaii was different, though. At least it felt different to me. Surfing wasn't subcultural or imported or oppositional--even though its survival represented enduring opposition to the Calvinist business values of Hiram Bingham. It felt deeply woven into the fabric of the place."

p. 29

"The other world was land: everything that was not surfing. Books, girls, school, my family, friends who did not surf. "Society," as I was learning to call it, and the exactions of Mr. Responsible. Hands folded under my chin, I drifted. A bruise-colored cloud hung over Koko Head. A transistor radio twanged on a seawall where a Hawaiian family picnicked on the sand. The sun-warmed shallow water had a strange boiled-vegetable taste. The moment was immense, still, glittering, mundane. I tried to fix each of its parts in memory. I did not consider, even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it chose."

p. 40

"Recalling all this, I'm struck by how much violence defined my childhood. Nothing lethal, nothing horrifying, but basic to daily life in a way that seems archaic now. Bigger guys bullied, even tortured, smaller guys. It didn't occur to me to complain. We boxed in the street; adults didn't bat an eye. I didn't actually like to fight--certainly not to lose--and I don't think I've been in a serious fight since I was fourteen. But i was so much the Middle American (not to mention the Hawaiian) norm when I was a boy that I never gave it a critical thought."

p. 80

"Caryn did find her father. It was the following year, in San Francisco. We had both fled Maui for the civilizing precincts of college. I was back in Santa Cruz, she was living nearby, and we were no longer a couple. My grief over our breakup felt bottomless. I was not always reasonable. Still, Caryn called me after she found Sam, and we went back to see him together. He was living in a hotel on Sixth Street--skid row. We talked out way upstairs. The halls stank of piss, dried sweat, midlew, curry. Caryn knocked on a door. No answer. She called to him. "Dad? It's me. It's Caryn." After several minutes of silence, Sam opened the door. He looked bewildered and unwell. A short, wiry-haired, sad-eyed man. He didn't smile or reach for his daughter. A homemade chessboard, drawn on the side of a grocery bag, was on the bed, set with pieces made from bottle caps and cigarette butts. He appeared to have been playing alone. I left them to it. I walked the tragic warehouse streets, past winos sleeping in alleys. The Jones Hotel, the Oak Tree Hotel, the Rose. This couldn't be Sam's world, after a monastery on Maui. Later, we all went out to a dank cafeteria. Sam and I played chess. Caryn watched, her face a mask of sorrow. I tried to think about the moves. Sam played carefully. His few comments were measured, well chosen. Nobody cried, or said anything barbed. There would be time, I assumed, for that. I wouldn't be there. Still, I wondered what Sam, mental illness and all, might have to tell us about adulthood. Why, for example, did it seem to be always receding as a concept, even as we got older?"

p. 143

"But everything felt different without Caryn: harsher, more jagged. She, for good reason, felt abandoned by her father. I, for less identifiable reasons, felt abandoned generally. The existentialist psychiatrist R. D. Laing--a radical critic, like Brown, of received wisdom, and similarly inclined to see mental illness as a sane response to an insane world, even as a form of "shamanic" journey--described in one of his early books what he called the "ontologically secure" person. That, I thought, was not me. I read and wrote feverishly. My journals were full of anguish, self-excoriation, ambition, overheard speech that tickled me, and long passages from the work of favorite writers copied out by hand. One of the few things that calmed me reliably was surfing."

p. 144

"Surfers have a perfection fetish. The perfect wave, etcetera. There is no such thing. Waves are not stationary objects in nature like roses or diamonds. They're quick, violent events at the end of a long chain of storm action and ocean reaction. Even the most symmetrical break have quirks and a totally specific, local character, changing with every shift in tide and wind and swell."

p. 203

"Bryan had not finished reading his entire stack of New Yorkers before we left Kirra, and the fifty or so remaining had been stuffed under the front seat. We sometimes pulled them out and read from them aloud--short stories, poems, reviews, humor pieces, essays, long reported pieces. Many of these, one of both of us had read before, but hearing them in the outback was different. It was a test. How would the stuff hold up in the harsh, no-bullshit desert light? Some of it did fine. The writing was still strong, the stories still funny. But pretension and flab came up fluorescent in this merciless scan, and certain writers suddenly seemed like hothouse poseurs. They became unintentionally hilarious."

p. 232

"My parents came to Cape Town, on short notice, uninvited. I didn't want them to come. I was exceptionally busy at school, but it wasn't that. I was homesick, chronically, particularly now that Sharon was gone, and I was worried that seeing my mother and father--seeing their faces, hearing their voices, particularly my mother's laugh--would shatter my resolve to stay on this lonely expat track and complete my chosen projects: teaching, the novel."

p. 269

"A word about bloody-mindedness. For most surfers, I think--for me, certainly--waves have a spooky duality. When you are absorbed in surfing them, they seem alive. They each have personalities, distinct and intricate, and quickly changing moods, to which you must react in the most intuitive, almost intimate way--too many people have likened riding waves to making love. And yet waves are of course not alive, not sentient, and the lover you reach to embrace may turn murderous without warning. It's nothing personal. That self-disemboweling death wave on the inside bar is not bloody-minded. Thinking so is just reflex anthropomorphism. Wave love is a one-way street."

p. 291

"In November 2001, our daughter, Mollie, was born. We had wanted a child for a while. To say we were besotted would be a grave understatement. Our world got suddenly both much smaller and much larger. A rascally smile was a universe. I lost interest in leaving New York. Before Caroline got pregnant, I had been reporting in Bolivia and South Africa. Now Miami felt like a long way to go for a story. When I went to London on assignment, Caroline and Mollie came along. I quit war reporting, even my own mild version of it. I missed two winters in Madeira without a trace of regret."

p. 400

"It was my age, I later decided. My quick calculations, my solid intuitions about my own lung capacity were off. I survived that second wave, obviously, but again ran out of oxygen many seconds before I expected to. The interval that day was long, which helped me avoid a two-wave hold-down, which I would probably no have come up from. As it happened, the third wave was smaller. I scrambled back to the channel. I felt peaceful afterward. Ashamed of myself, deeply exhausted, but newly decided not to do this again--not to bend my neck, not to commend my soul to the ocean at its most violent in the hope of some absolution. My nose was still dripping seawater in the taxi home from Newark."

p. 442

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