Lit Crit

Surfer Privilege

July 11, 2018

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Surfer Privilege

How high of a standard of living did young baby boomers enjoy, especially those of us fortunate to grow up on the then lightly populated West Coast? That question kept coming to mind while reading the acclaimed 2015 memoir of a youth spent at the beach in California and Hawaii, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan, now a veteran war correspondent for The New Yorker.

Comedian Garry Shandling’s most reliable joke was about taking a drive in the country and doing what everybody does when he first sees a cow: rolling down the window and shouting, “Moo.” But, Shandling asked, “What’s the cow thinking?”

“Oh, look, there’s a cow driving a car…. How can he afford that?”

Similarly, while reading Finnegan’s account of his quintessential boomer life of freedom, security, and opportunity enjoying himself in some of the most desirable real estate in the world, I kept asking from my 2018 perspective: How could he afford that?

Surfing may be even more addictive than its counterparts, such as skiing, mountain climbing, and golf. While the waves are free (which, I learned from Barbarian Days, causes surfers no end of grief), the real estate values of adjoining coastal property have only gone up and up over Finnegan’s lifetime. The roll call of places where Finnegan surfed as a boy and young man—Malibu, Newport Beach, Topanga Canyon, Santa Barbara, Honolulu, Santa Cruz, Maui, Australia’s Gold Coast, Cape Town, and San Francisco—reads like a real estate speculator’s fever dream.

From a supply-and-demand perspective, the answer to Shandling’s cow question is obvious: Finnegan could afford to spend thousands of hours surfing in various slices of paradise because he was born in 1952.

Granted, the best year of all to be born was 1946. Following the long baby bust of 1930–45, the country was desperately short of young men. So those born in 1946 went through life with little competition ahead of them. (See the fabulous careers of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, all born in 1946.)

But 1952 wasn’t a bad birth year for boomer entitlement either: Supply and demand were still in your favor. Moreover, Finnegan’s working-class Irish-American parents had the good sense to white-flight from New York City to spacious Woodland Hills, California.

Before overpopulation, women’s lib, and immigration, America, especially California, had needed its young men, and would therefore put up with a lot from them. Finnegan recounts his occasional worries that his obsession with surfing might be interfering with finishing his degree at a free University of California campus and starting a white-collar career, but decent-paying blue-collar jobs were no problem for a strong young man to find back then.

Indeed, having grown up a dozen miles down the Ventura Freeway and a half-dozen years after Finnegan, his privileged life story is hardly unfamiliar to me. In fact, I kept wondering whether his was the same Finnegan clan I’d been in the Boy Scouts with in Sherman Oaks in 1970.

They weren’t, I eventually determined, but the numerous biographical similarities between these two sets of upwardly mobile Finnegans point out that many boomer Americans were able to afford similar lives before California became quite so crowded. A few years before Finnegan took up surfing at age 10 in 1962–63, the Census measured California’s population at 16 million (versus 40 million today).

“Finnegan’s prose isn’t quite adequate to reproduce the level of ecstasy his surfing must have elicited in him.”

Finnegan didn’t grow up rich—he can recall his housewife mom and him bringing lunch to the Reseda gas station where his father was a pump jockey. But there was enormous opportunity in postwar Southern California. His father caught on as a union set worker on TV shows in the 1950s, and by the 1970s was producing Hawaii-Five-O episodes as a specialist in television series set in the fiftieth state. (Hawaii is relatively forgotten today—recall how nobody cared that Barack Obama was the first Hawaiian-born president—but Americans couldn’t get enough of the fiftieth state a half century ago.)

Being from a working-class Irish-American background hadn’t kept Finnegan’s dad from having four children, starting with the author at age 24. Long before his father made it big, he was already earning enough money working with his hands so that the author’s talented mother could stay home with Little Bill and his three siblings. Later, as an empty nester, his mother became a TV executive and garnered 39 IMDb production credits. Life seemed full of possibilities back then.

In contrast, the author has had one child at age 48 and his wife works as an attorney. Unlike his own parents, whose laissez-faire attitude toward their son’s surfing fanaticism seemed to be that while losing an heir to drowning would be tragic, they would still have plenty of spares, Finnegan, a typically cautious 21st-century father, is happy that his one child doesn’t surf.

Young Finnegan became even more maniacal about hitting the waves when his father started a third career building beach houses in Ventura, northwest of Los Angeles. Then his family of six decamped to spend a year in Honolulu working on one of the many Hawaiian-themed TV shows of the era, where the seventh grader could go surfing seven days per week.

Being familiar only with the fine Los Angeles public schools of that long-ago era, his parents blithely dumped him in a Honolulu public junior high, where Kill Haole Day was every day. Fortunately, Finnegan found refuge in a white gang.

So what did I learn from Barbarian Days besides that everything millennials complain about regarding boomer privilege is true?

Surfing is one of the most time-consuming avocations: Prime surfing spots are rare, and ideal conditions come and go sporadically, so surfers waste vast amounts of time not surfing.

And even on the ideal days, putting yourself in location to catch a wave requires intense study of the local hydrology. “All surfers are oceanographers,” explains Finnegan. An ignorant surfer might catch only one wave per hour, while a local who has devoted a thousand hours to studying and discussing this particular break with other locals might catch, say, three waves per hour. If you have the surfing bug, this trade-off seems extremely reasonable.

Waves, therefore, tend to take up much of the space in surfers’ brains. Perhaps that’s why surfing has tended to be one of the less literary of the outdoor sports, the opposite of the extremely bookish mountain climbing.

Finnegan’s 2015 memoir has thus been widely celebrated as the best surfing book ever. This may give you an exaggerated expectation of Barbarian Days’ literary merit. As a prose stylist, Finnegan is a perfectly adequate New Yorker staffer, with the merits of the house style of lucidity and modesty. Still, Finnegan is a bit of a Gloomy Gus, and his prose isn’t quite adequate to reproduce the level of ecstasy his surfing must have elicited in him.

Also, huge chunks of the book are devoted to technical explications of the scores of famous surf breaks Finnegan has ridden under varying conditions. If you are not a surfer, this is a little bit like reading a golfer’s memoir about what it is like to play the Road Hole at St. Andrews both on fast and firm turf in a two clubs helping breeze and on a damp day into a gale.

The surfer’s study of surfing waves is the offshore equivalent of the golfer’s study of linksland dunes, both of which are formed by water, wind, and sand. Golf originated in Scotland where rivers poured sand into the sea, which blew back up into dunes that weren’t good for much besides sheep and golf, but are utterly fascinating to their devotees in their variety of shapes. Waves aren’t all that different from dunes (other than being able to kill you).

Finnegan’s book comes with a few snapshots of waves he has ridden, but it would be more reader-friendly with a glossary of surf jargon (fortunately, Wikipedia provides one), a few diagrams, and an index.

Don’t worry: It’s okay to skim.

Eventually, Finnegan gets around to answering various questions of interest to nonsurfers. For instance, Finnegan opines that nobody can ever be a great surfer if he doesn’t start by age 14, and that virtually no surfer improves after his teenage years. (Finnegan himself appears to remain an excellent surfer for his age, although not pro level, perhaps the equivalent of a golfer who occasionally qualifies for the USGA’s Mid-Amateur championship for amateurs over age 25.)

Finnegan is an old-fashioned macho leftist. But he seems unenthused by contemporary anti-straight-white-male identity politics and allows his conservative surfer buddies a number of the best lines in the book, such as his Valley Dude friend who tells him, “You know what your problem is? You don’t like your own kind.”

Interestingly, there are no serious women surfers in Finnegan’s memoir at all. And every single one of his surf buddies has been straight, even his New York City surf pal, John Selya, who is a professional Broadway dancer. While some of Finnegan’s Honolulu surf buddies were Native Hawaiian or Japanese, the only African-American who appears in the book is Punahou Prep’s nonsurfing Barack Obama, who is amazed to hear in 2004 that Finnegan’s parents had sent him to a notoriously haole-hostile public school.

Although Finnegan devotes a few paragraphs to how surfers were, vaguely, part of 1960s leftism, the reality is that surfing is, by its nature, anti-egalitarian, territorialist, and exclusionary. The immigration issue never comes up in Barbarian Days, but it’s clear that the best surfers’ instincts toward what they care about most, waves, are fiercely restrictionist. Surfers tend to be localists, who are like nationalist nativists, only more tribal.