The most adventurous thing I ever did in my life didn’t happen on
the reefs of Indonesia or on the rivet-ruined roads of Baja or
deep in the Fijian jungles hiking toward a rumored surfing Mecca.
No, unfortunately for me, my most adventurous moment happened
at Topanga Canyon State Beach in Malibu, California in 1992, during
the summer between sixth and seventh grade with a guy named
If surfing has taught me anything, it’s that you deal with what you’ve got in front of you…
If surfing has taught me anything, it’s that you deal with what
you’ve got in front of you, but I’m still inclined to exercise creative
license here in making up a better start to my surfing career—something
a little bit more glamorous, perhaps.
Sadly, the memory of where that surfing career started is so vivid
that I couldn’t fake it if I wanted to. I remember every sensory detail
of that experience: from the misty gray fog bank sitting over the
water (I’ve since come to expect nothing less of California summers),
to the dew-moist sand underneath my feet, to the chest-high rightbreaking
waves peeling softly along the otherwise glassy ocean, to
the oversized neon green and black hand-me-down spring suit that
my rail-thin arms and legs couldn’t quite fill out yet, even if my dad
said that it “looked pretty good” to him (patting me on the back in
such a way that I expected him to say, “hey, hey”).
For sheer adrenaline, I’ve probably had adventures that top this
one, but in terms of paradigm-shifting experience, no contest.
I was dragging the yellowing tail of a humorously oversized,
1983 vintage 6’4″ squaretail thruster with boxy rails and fixed fins
that my brother Brian had bought secondhand—Play It Again
Sports, maybe—letting the leash trail 6 feet behind me. To my left
was Peter Finn, whose mother had driven us here in her navy blue
Jeep Wagoneer with the wood-paneled siding, and if I was unpoised
and comically outfitted, Peter had all of the gear. His wetsuit fit just
right, and his board was white and perfectly waxed. (I didn’t know
what surf wax did at that point.) He knew how to let the leash loop
just over the front of his board as he carried it under his arm and he
looked every bit the part of a fully formed 12-year-old surfer.
For my part, I was starting to regret having told Peter a week
before that I was a surfer, and that I knew exactly what I was doing.
The lie worked on the dry land of the San Fernando Valley playground,
but it was going to become incredibly transparent in the
next two minutes. No, I would have done better to tell Peter that my
brother Brian had taken up surfing—though I’d never actually seen
him do it—and that I figured it couldn’t possibly be that hard if Brian
could do it.
When we were standing there on the sand, if I was really keen, I
might have taken a hard look at the faces of the surfers in the water,
stepped back, and thought about the absolute resolve they all
seemed to undertake the sport with, but I was 12.
Peter attached his leash to his ankle expertly, made a quick dash
to the water, dove in, and paddled off to the lineup, leaving me
standing alone on the sand dune, trying to figure out how to make
sense of any of the apparatuses I’d been given. My wetsuit was so
oversized that I had stepped through the neckhole to put it on, and
as I looked at the leash, I had no idea which leg it was supposed to
go on, so I opted for the left, though when I attached the Velcro
around my ankle as tight as possible, the whole loop still slipped off
of my foot, and I knew that I was not going to make as deft an
entrance as Peter.
As it turned out, I jumped on my board in the shallows, its nose
pointing west and my body pointing vaguely southwest. The cold,
salty water flooding my wetsuit so that it hung sloppily over my wire
coat hangers of shoulders. The surfboard suddenly seemed like an
extremely complicated piece of equipment, my arms transformed
into rather ineffectual and awkward appendages. Peter was sitting in
the lineup with the grownups and high school kids, and though I did
my tenacious best for the next half-hour to join him, it was no use.
I grew up over the hill from Topanga Canyon State Beach, in The
Valley, and though I had seen enough TV to know that this made me
a “Val” and that this was somehow bad, I also knew that it didn’t
matter, because surfing was something I was not cut out for. I tried
to convince myself that surfing was stupid, and started yearning at
that exact moment for a football and consequently a pastime that
made sense, because all of this surfing stuff just seemed so frivolous
and silly when you compared it to, say, Marcus Allen and the Los
Maybe my life would be easier if I could have convinced myself
of this. Maybe if that had happened I would today be able to sit still
for more than two hours at a time without having to consult a surf
report, or I wouldn’t have the impulse to drive the same two-mile
loop to the beach five times a day, or I might not feel the need to
make a ridiculous phone call to somebody I don’t really want to
speak to so that they can assuage my fears and tell me that the surf
is utterly terrible.
But I didn’t succeed at any of it.
And, OCD tendencies aside, there were more profound
moments to come in my surfing career—times more triumphant and
poetic and meaningful—but I guess it wouldn’t be right to track it
back to anything but Peter Finn, a god-awful surfboard, and 30
absolutely ridiculous minutes of pure desire at Topanga Canyon. My
life literally hasn’t been the same ever since. If I would have slept in,
or ignored it, I might be somewhere else in the world, but I’m not.
And thank God for that.