May 16, 2012

What We're Talking About When We Talk About Peter Heller

I recently read a book about surfing by Peter Heller.  Except that it wasn't just about surfing.  In fact, for me it was hardly about that sport at all.

In that way, it was like reading Brothers K.  That book was about baseball, but the moment I finished it, I went out and rode my bike even though it was long after dark and very foggy.

Parallel to his discussion of learning to surf (Heller's goal stated at the start is to go from a beginner surfer to a bona-fides tube rider in six months), Peter talks about deciding to marry his wife, "Kim" (which may, or may not, be her real name).  He becomes obsessed with surfing and at first ditches Kim to follow his 6 mo. plan.  Once she comes along, he learns progressively what a jerk he is.

There are poignant moments where Heller realizes what his hunt for surf is costing Kim.  She likes to surf, but doesn't love it.  She patiently and methodically gets ready to head out on the water again and again, and Heller freaks out, afraid that the waves will disappear before she's ready.  He doesn't paint himself as a patient man.  He throws temper tantrums and ditches her at times, but one moment where she is in danger, in pain, and in tears and Heller sees this while waiting for waves (he comes to her aid) crystallizes the realizations that make this much more than a simple book about waves.

It also helps that Heller is a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist.  You see, this is sort of his "fun" book.  He is known to you- if he is- for his book The Whale Warriors, which follows the struggle for life of cetaceans, and thus the ocean itself.

So, mixed in with the struggle to commit to his girlfriend/wife, and the struggle to commit as a middle-aged man to truly humbling himself and learning from both the waves and local experts at various spots, is a love of the ocean and also the communities which surround some of these wonderful waves.

Most of Heller's trip is in Baja, Mexico.  It turns out that developers really love to build resorts and theme restaurants in beautiful oceanfront spots.  One town, where a developer puts up a chainlink fence in front of a public beach with a narrow gate and a sign reading "public welcome" sums up the social situation Heller describes.  Sure, it's public, but the fact that there's a sign implies the right can be revoked...

But all of that is simply prologue.  Of course, when we are moved by a book like this, it is not because we care overly much about Peter Heller.  Or for that matter, because we empathize that much with his wife.

Of course, it is because he's hit a nerve and he is (seemingly) talking about each of us.  It's not HIS wife I'm concerned about, it is my own.  It's not his mid-life-crisis I'm concerned with, but my own.  When he struggles to learn, I don't truly worry that he won't make it- clearly, there's a book written about it.  Everything turns out OK for Heller.  On the surface it seems that way, but what I'm really asking is- could I do this?  Could I learn something like this at my age?  Is there a way for me to learn to love my own wife better when I'm being an impatient jerk? 

These are the answers that kept me turning the pages of Kook.  As with all books, I can't honestly say whether I found them.  There was no moment when I was hit by lightning and a booming voice spoke from Heaven.

But this, too, goes along with the struggle Peter Heller describes.  Each wave is a learning experience.  Each person he meets can change the whole face of his project.  Like when, 3/4 of the way through the book, a pro surfer who's helping Heller to learn to use a shortboard tells him he's paddling all wrong.  More than halfway through his big project, he's been catching waves totally wrong.

For me, this summarizes the fact that we're always learning, that there's a world out there we can't even imagine.  I was talking to Kathy the other day about this. 

I finally started listening to The Decemberists.  A band I love.  And people had told me for years they were good.  But somehow I wasn't ready.  It makes my brain go a little fuzzy to think that these songs were there in plain sight, but I wouldn't open my eyes to see them.  All fine and good, but as when you "discover" a fantastic book, it leaves you feeling:  What else is out there, like this?  What else am I missing?  What is the paddling lesson that I need to learn, and when is it going to happen.

In the end, what does this all mean?  Perhaps that the main solution of or to midlife-crisis is to remain flexible.  Open.  To new books.  To new music.  To new ideas.  To new methods. 

To life.

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