The many reasons why Jay Caspian Kang’s “Writing Waves”—part memoir, part book review of William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days”—in the New York Times Magazine resonated with me.
Kang starts out by researching writing about surfing and pondering its difficulty, locating at the crux one of my favorite topics:
“I concluded that writing about surfing was impossible because surfing elicited happiness, and it is impossible to write about happiness.”
I think positive psychologists would argue that the sciences and humanities can intersect productively with happiness. It’s not impossible, it’s just very hard to do without cliché. Kang says Finnegan
“was the first person I had come across who could write about surfing without schmaltz or weighty metaphors.”
Here’s Kang quoting Finnegan’s description of Ocean Beach:
“San Francisco’s ‘giant gray,’ ‘ominous’ waves”
I can picture those waves, and OB’s riptide warning signs, posted at every entrance. It’s there that I watched M surf, in the same years that Kang surfed there daily.
Kang, inspired by Finnegan, even considers intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. To find flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, one should participate in activities that are worthwhile in themselves.
On clean, January days, surfing, even badly, was enough to give me a purpose in life. But on choppy, stupid days in September, as I paddled futilely straight into the first line of white water at Ocean Beach, I would think about Peewee’s vision of silent, simple doing over Doc’s vision of daily, ritualistic heroism. I did not really believe surfing was nothing more than surfing, but I hoped I might one day get good enough at it to drop all its sentimental trappings.
He seems to be yearning for an un-self-consciousness state of engagement, where one’s skills are matched well to the challenges: flow.
He also covets Finnegan’s freedom to solely pursue surfing, not unlike my jealousy of Matisse’s lifetime of art-making:
A surfer feels an even mix of nostalgia and envy reading that passage. The boundlessness of Finnegan’s wave chasing now feels at once out of reach and dated, in the manner of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.
I’m intrigued by the humility, insight, and craftsmanship from both Kang and Finnegan. I adored Finnegan’s “Off Diamond Head” in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, and now am especially eager to read “Barbarian Days.”