Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Aging gracefully in Cambodia

Getting old is interesting. When I was younger, I thought I’d hate it. I lived an active life and did my best to stay active as I got older. Surfing was my greatest passion and I surfed a shortboard until I was 58. I wanted to surf into my sixties, but didn’t factor moving to Cambodia into my plans. We get waves here about twice a year and they are small waves with no shape. I’m aging gracefully in Cambodia, though. It’s not something I concentrate on. It seems to come naturally.

Aging Gracefully

I made up for not being able to surf in Cambodia by riding my mountain bike and swimming. Neither activity was as interesting as surfing, but at least I was getting some exercise. Then one day the cartilage in my right knee disappeared and walking or riding my bike became painful. Fortunately, I got a Cambodian natural medicine that helped. I wasn’t able to ride my bike, but I could hobble into the water and swim. Once I was swimming, I felt no pain.

I still like to swim, but I’ve had to resign myself to the fact that I’m getting older. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I don’t feel the need to be as active as I used to be and can focus on my work more. I used to get restless when I had to sit down for long periods of time. Now I don’t mind sitting at my desk working on assignments.

Getting older has some side benefits. I don’t focus on my personal desires as much as I used to. I’m more interested in making sure the children I’m responsible for have everything they need. I don’t want as much as I used to want. I’m happy if I can enjoy a swim a few days a week and am wildly happy when I have a good book to read. I don’t pine away for my younger days, either. That came as a surprise to me, especially after what happened today.

Living in the Past

My son sent me a book. It’s called Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s all about surfing. William started surfing at about the same time I started. He and his family moved to Hawaii from Ventura. I started surfing in Manhattan Beach and took it up again when I moved to Australia in 1985. That’s one reason why Barbarian Days has made me look back on my surfing years, but it’s not the only reason.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

I met Bill Finnegan when he took over from me at a bookshop in Lahaina, Maui in about 1970. In 1984 I was living in San Francisco and hired a young woman to help me. She turned out to be his girlfriend. Bill was working on his first book then. Caroline was a brilliant artist, but at about the same time I moved to Australia, she and Bill moved to New York. He got a job at the New Yorker and she became a lawyer.

Sometime in the 1990s I decided I wanted to know what had become of Caroline. I couldn’t find an email address for her, but when I looked up William Finnegan, I discovered he was working for the New Yorker. I sent her an email through him. I was a little jealous. I hadn’t made much of my life and here he was working for the New Yorker. I mentioned that in my email and also mentioned my recent trip to G-land in Indonesia and how good the waves were in Avoca Beach. Bill was a little envious of me.

I first heard of Barbarian Days on Facebook. A couple of surfing magazines I followed reviewed the book. One quoted Bill as saying he could have written about the people he has met while working for the New Yorker. That wasn’t interesting to him, though. “Surfing is endlessly interesting,” he said and that’s why he wrote about surfing.

I started reading Barbarian Days today, but had to put it down because I kept flashing back to my surfing years. I went way back to high school. In about 1965, there was a big swell. Redondo breakwater was perfect. The waves bounced off the breakwater and peeled off down the beach. I was the only no-name surfer in the water. I couldn’t compete with the others, so I sat closer to the rocks and outside of them. When the bigger sets came, I was in the perfect position.

That day was my moment of surfing glory. Cameramen from an L.A. station and the local newspaper were there. A short clip of me was featured on television and there was a picture of me in the local paper. Every time I got a wave, I bellied in and after I got the biggest wave of the day, a bunch of people congratulated me. One offered me a cup of coffee and another gave me a cigarette to warm up. The water was freezing and good wetsuits didn’t exist back then. My skin was blue, but the waves were so good I warmed up by running back out to the rocks and across the flat path on top of the breakwater. I’d wait for sets to pass, make my way down the rocks and jump into the water.

I’m not writing this to brag. I’m writing it because remembering my best days of surfing doesn’t make me feel sad like I used to think it would. The memories are enough for me. The memories that make me a little sad are memories of times when I didn’t take a risk, but there’s a happy side even to some of those.

One day I was out surfing with a friend. The waves were overhead and perfect. I had to turn later than I wanted to on one wave and straightened out instead of pulling in. My friend, who was a better surfer than I, told me I could have made it. It weighed heavily on my mind, but the story has a happy ending. When I went to G-land in August of 1992, just a few months before my 45th birthday, I promised myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake. The waves were big and broke on a shallow coral reef. I fell off on my first three waves, but my fourth wave was the best wave of my life. I have the lesson I learned from my friend to thank for that. I knew I was getting older and didn’t want to miss my chance to ride the most perfect waves I’d ever ridden.

Not being able to surf doesn’t make me sad. On the contrary, I’m grateful that fate took me to Avoca Beach, where I had a beach break, a point and a reef to surf. When Avoca wasn’t good, there were other waves within easy driving distance to surf. If fate hadn’t taken me to Australia, surfing would be a distant memory.

As the saying goes, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” There is something magical about surfing. I’m grateful to have been able to surf for over 20 years in Australia, Bali and Indonesia. I am aging gracefully thanks to memories of perfect waves. Fortunately, I don’t dwell on the flat spells and sloppy waves that came between those perfect days. Only the best days remain in my memory and I can almost relive them even now.