Book Review: Barbarian Days

Greetings from Costa Rica! 

For the first post of the year I decided to do a book review of William Finnegan's Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Penguin, 2015). I have been planning to do so since I first read the book, but other duties have kept it on the back burner. Now I want to give my copy to my brother before I leave Costa Rica, but not before I write this review.

Barbarian Days  in the jungle of Costa Rica at Rancho Diandrew where this copy will live after I am gone. 

Barbarian Days in the jungle of Costa Rica at Rancho Diandrew where this copy will live after I am gone. 

I would think that most people reading/following this blog have already read or at least own Barbarian Days. I say this because it was given to me by a CSC member (Paul, who is on his way down here today), and I have had conversations with other members about it on rides to the beach. I see it on all of the shelves and table displays of the local surf shops, and two big chunks of the text have already been published in The New Yorker where Finnegan is a staff writer -- first "Playing Doc's Games" Pts i and ii, August 24 and 31, 1992; second "Off Diamond Head", June 1, 2015 (I have learned that most New Yorker pieces are simply discreet advertisements for future books). 

With so many people having read it or who are planning on reading it, I am not going to give a synopsis of the narrative. And besides it is a memoir so it should suffice to say that it roughly follows the events of Finnegan's life, which has been primarily centered around surfing. This is the first thing I like about the book: it is written by a person who is completely obsessed with surfing. He has structured his life to be able to surf, and even when he has taken hiatuses for work and self discovery, he always comes back to this driving force. In this way Finnegan's book has a legitimizing quality for me. The fact that he has managed to make a career for himself while still structuring his life around surfing assures me that I am not alone. He is also able to articulate the doubts that beleaguer this life choice -- those same doubts that are assuaged when one learns that others also have them. 

The second thing I like about the book are the descriptions of how waves break. After my first read I mused that if I took all the parts from Barbarian Days where he describes breaking waves I could have a handy little guide to surfing. I intend to write some sort of ethics of surfing one day, and so I admire the way Finnegan handles the basics of wave generation and mechanics for his non initiated readers: 

Here's how ridable waves form. A storm out at sea churns the surface, creating chop--smaller and larger disorganized wavelets, which amalgamate, with enough wind, into heavy seas. What we are waiting for on distant coasts is the energy that escapes from the storm, radiating outward into calmer waters in the form of wave trains--groups of waves, increasingly organized, that travel together. Each wave sets off a column of orbiting water, most of it below the surface. All the wave trains produced by a storm constitute what surfers call a swell. The swell can travel thousands of miles. The more powerful the storm, the farther the swell may travel. As it travels, it becomes more organized--the distance between each wave in a train, known as the interval, becomes uniform. In a long interval-train, the orbiting water may extend more than a thousand feet beneath the ocean surface. Such a train can pass easily through surface resistance like chop or other smaller, shallower swells that it crosses or overtakes.  
As waves from a swell approach a shoreline, their lower ends begin to feel the sea bottom. Wave trains become sets--groups of waves that are larger and longer-interval than their more locally generated cousins. The approaching waves refract (bend) in response to the shape of the sea bottom. The visible part of the wave grows, its orbiting energy pushed higher above the surface. The resistance offered by the sea bottom increases as the water gets shallower, slowing the progress of the wave. The wave above the surface steepens. Finally, it becomes unstable and prepares to topple forward--to break. The rule of thumb is that it will break when the wave height reaches 80 percent of the water's depth--an eight-foot wave will break in ten feet of water. But many factors, some of them endlessly subtle--wind, bottom contour, swell angle, currents--determine exactly where and how each wave breaks. As surfers, we're just hoping that it has a catchable moment (a takeoff point), and a ridable face, and that it doesn't break all at once (close out) but instead breaks gradually, successively (peels), in one direction or the other (left or right), allowing us to travel roughly parallel to shore, riding the face, for a while, in that spot, in that moment, just before it breaks (41-2). 

I have read similar descriptions before in books such as Drew Kampion's The Book of Waves: Form and Beauty on the Ocean (1989), Willard Bascom's Waves and Beaches (1980), and H. Arthur Klein's Surfing (1965), and can attest that here Finnegan deftly merges all three. What is of particular importance is the emphasis he places on swell interval, which because the waves are generated as described above, is the most important factor in reading a surf report. Interval, more than wave height, gives us an idea about the size and consistency of any given swell. 

The third thing I like about Barbarian Days is Finnegan's attunement to critical themes having to do with cultural dynamics. Most surf writing, like surf film, is just plain corny and shallow. For some reason the awesomeness of the ocean and the thrill of riding a wave has eluded surf writers for decades. Furthermore, surf culture more generally has a tendency to whitewash its complicity in the continued colonial, imperial, misogynistic, hegemonic, western domination of the known world. The reportage of his early days in Hawaii is a good example:

I already knew, in rough outline, what had happened to the Hawaiians--how American missionaries and other haoles and subjugated them, stolen their lands, killed them en masse with diseases, and converted the survivors to Christianity. I felt no responsibility for this cruel dispossession, no liberal guilt, but I knew enough to keep my junior atheist's mouth shut (17). 

Sometimes it is enough to admit one's complicity. I do not think Finnegan fashions himself an activist here, nor does he have any intentions to, but I do think that he does illuminate the political conundrum of the (especially white) surfer: we benefit from unequal power structures and feel them to be unjust and even though we know this, when faced with a decision to pick up a protest sign or go surfing, we will choose surfing every time. Nonetheless, as Finnegan shows here, we can at the very least learn to identify these dynamics and in paying witness to them try our best not to interfere with codes into which we were not born, or at the very least to learn to maintain a respectful distance. Anyone who has traveled to Hawaii to surf understands what I mean by this respectful distance. There are certain mokes whose waves you do not even look at. It is their land and their waves and if you are lucky and exude aloha (which is also a code of respect) you will get a few of your own--maybe not a ton, but that's part of understanding the history and acknowledging your place in the pecking order. 

The fourth thing I like about Barbarian Days is that Finnegan writes about San Francisco and New York, the two cities in which I have lived and surfed for most of my adult life (10 years in SF, going on 7 in NY). I appreciate his diagnosis of the difference in the two surf cultures: 

Surfers around here--Long Island and Jersey locals--are strangely genial. I've never gotten used to it. There was a baseline reserve in California and Hawaii, an idea of cool in the water--what was worth saying, what level of ride or wave or maneuver merited a hoot of approbation--that I internalized as a kid and can't unlearn. On this coast, people will hoot anyone, friend or stranger, for almost anything that looks halfway decent. I like the unpretentiousness, the lack of snobbery, and yet some unredeemed part of me recoils. Greater New York lineups are, against stereotype, mellow. I have never seen a threat or an angry exchange, let alone a fight, in the water here. That's partly because the crowds are never maddeningly terrible, a la Malibu or Rincon, partly because the waves are usually not worth fighting over, but mostly it's culture. A certain superciliousness and self-absorption that long ago became the norm on more celebrated coasts and islands in surf world have never taken root in these parts. It's easy to strike up a conversation in the lineup with a stranger here--I've done it a hundred times. People are even eager to share detailed knowledge of their local breaks. Another transplant surfer I know calls it 'urban aloha.' But it's really more suburban or shore-town. At least I've never met anybody in the water who said they live in Manhattan. Brooklyn, a few times, yes (419-20). 

This part of the book is clearly dated, either that or Finnegan clearly has not surfed Long Beach or Rockaway in the past couple of years. But the overall emphasis that people in the water are nicer on the East Coast than on the West Coast and in Hawaii still rings true. I know. I just got back from 7 day trip to California. Unlike Finnegan, however, I have gotten used to the genial vibe in the breaks closest to Brooklyn and Manhattan (and of course most of us now know tons of people who surf and who live in both). When I surf in CA I wish people would just get over themselves and share waves. On the same token, I have also seen a bit more gruffness on the East Coast than Finnegan admits to here. I have seen a woman in Rockaway completely scream at two guys for close to 15 minutes straight and have also seen photos of another man from there attempting to rip the fins out of a another guy's surfboard.  But that is seriously nothing compared to the daily bad vibes and heinous stuff I have seen and experienced growing up on the West Coast. In this light, I do understand and identify with Finnegan's reticence to feel more a part of the East Coast surfing culture. There's a part of a West Coast surfer's mentality that makes you feel that people have to earn their excitement about surfing. That's the reserve he's talking about, the idea of cool. You pull into a barrel and come out with your head down as if nothing happened at all, giggling to yourself, and feeling superior in a very strange and powerful way. You are not going to claim it, but you will certainly accept any and all compliments. The truth is though, that there are surfers like that on both coasts. And there are also wild yahoos with no etiquette on both coasts. And the waves are more powerful on the West Coast. And people are more gruff. And when New Jersey is doing it's thing it is as good as anywhere that gets perfect in the world. So is Ocean Beach, SF. But the paddle, like the culture, is concretely more difficult. And yet, both densely populated urban areas are pretty awesome places to be a surfer, especially if you have a lot of drive and a knack for cold water and weather (and a car helps too--for escaping). 

My only criticism is that in many ways Finnegan is a grumpy old elitist fart. He knows that. He is honest about it and it is refreshing, but it is still what it is. He learned to surf in the 1960s in the meccas of surfing, Southern California and Hawaii. His dad was in film and became a kind of aficionado of films made by the sea and so he was always in great locations at a time when there were relatively few surfers around. He went on insane adventures and charges huge surf and believes that you have to take your hard knocks because that's how he did it. He resents how popular surfing has always been, mocks surf schools, and professional surfing. And I get it and I give it to him, but at the same time, at the very heart of it, it is the one thing that I am ambivalent towards in this book. This is probably because it is what I struggle with most with myself. Surfing is both something that I want desperately to share with other people and to keep to myself. But, to be completely transparent, I have found the genial, sharing with others kind of surfing, mixed with the codes of etiquette and respect of the old ways is truly the future of our great language game. This belief is ultimately why I founded Conatus Surf Club. I believe, unlike many old salty dogs, that like any language, the crucial parts of the surfing vocabulary can be and ought to be taught in a roughly formal manner. The wild west individualist approach has its merits, but overall I think that it is possible to integrate it in a more flourishing and communal way. We are capable of sharing waves with one another. We are also capable, still in 2016, of finding moments and peaks without many other people except our good surf buddies. You just have to have the gumption and fortitude to track them down, to choose joy through a certain kind of wild discipline, a sort of barbarian code of honor.  

The word barbarian is extremely loaded. It is not as though barbarians are not civilized, if by civilized we mean having language and codes of conduct. In fact it is kind of a misnomer for any culture outside of the hegemonic fold. In the original sense it simply means 'non-Greeks', at the time when the Greeks were founding all of Western philosophy, science, and history. But barbarians, like surfers, were only quasi counter-hegemonic. Barbarian cultures have always had their own myths, their own leaders, their own norms, their own sectarian squabbles, and even their own revolutions. Like all species and tribes, moreover, they also shift, change, mutate, transform, and ultimately (I like to think) evolve. 

In summation, this is an instant classic of surf literature, if that's even a genre. It is easy to forgive Finnegan for his barbaric prickliness because he provides us the historical coordinates in which we can contextualize it. And it is important for all of us to have this historical scope. Surfing, like everything else in our culture, is easier to access and consume than ever before. And besides that it has always been susceptible to extreme poseurs. This kind of unreflective consumption does need to be avoided and one of the best ways to do so is to arm oneself with a kind of deep historical grit. Finnegan is a forefather of the city surfer, a most civilized barbarian, and it pays to sit and listen to him talk story for 447 pages.  

Mini Missions and Vids

What a great first two weeks of November! Conditions have been tricky to nail down, but there have been at least 1-3 quality windows for surf every week. I recently ran two off the cuff surgical strike missions with my current roster of students who have purchased packages. Both times we scored empty waves for hours and they were huge successes overall. The first trip was to Asbury Park followed by lunch and a second surf in Long Beach. Both times we found a peak with no one on it and scored it all to ourselves. The second was a one day trip to Montauk where we went into full search mode, settled on a fun little beach break (again, no one out), ate steaming cups of clam chowder on the side of the road, and then traveled back to New York. I dropped everyone off at the subway stops I picked them up at (the Franklin 2/3/4/5 and the Bedford/Nostrand G) and went home and started editing video. 

In between these two extremely rad mini surf trips we had a great day of surf in Long Beach. That was Wednesday this week. One of my most dedicated acolytes, Beccy, got in a lesson in the morning before heading to work. I picked her up at the LIRR in LB at 6:22a and dropped her off at 8:30a. She charged hard and I managed to get her best waves on video. In a relatively short amount of time, Beccy has come a really long way with wave judgment and timing and overall surfing ability. After I dropped her off at the train I went back to the beach to try to get a few clips of the super smooth surfing of my friends Gus and Bennet, who were also getting in a session before they had to run off to their work life obligations. This I did and then I got so excited by their surfing that I had to paddle out again. My friends Bryan and Kyungmi joined in for the second surf and JP was also there. We took a short break in the middle of the day. I downloaded footage onto my computer and ate some bananas. Then we went for our third and final surf. The waves were still glassy and clean. We were joined by my great friend, Juan, who proceeded to shred it up all over. 

These little surf missions, along with more video, are definitely the direction that CSC is headed (along with lots of other cool stuff to be sure). In fact, this is a good example of how I plan for the Costa Rica camps to play out except that there will be a bit less driving and the water will be a lot warmer! There are still plenty of spots for the January camps, and I would like to get them booked asap. If you want to be cruising down the line by the time summer rolls around you need to get involved with these!  

And to cap off this post I'm going to leave you with two little edits that I have recently completed. The first is a compilation of the past two weeks, excepting the Montauk trip. It features JP, Beccy, Mariza, Paul, Bennet, Gus, Bryan, and Juan. The second was taken on a clean day the last week in October and features JP, husband and wife super team Maiko and Shigeru, and a local Long Beach guy named Justin. 

Committing to the Vertical

Hi Everyone! Looks like I've slipped up on my goal to blog once a week. Well a lot has been going on here at Conatus headquarters, not least of which has been teaching surfing every day of the week. We've had some great windswell pulses through the end of July into the start of August. Monday was the biggest I've seen Rockaway in a long time. It made for challenging conditions for one of my bravest students, but he handled it like a champ and even managed to drop into some solid four foot waves. It's all about patience and enjoying the adrenaline that fear produces.

I have been focusing a lot on the idea of "committing to the vertical" lately. It is very common for beginning and even intermediate surfers to shy away from the takeoff by standing up too early or not paddling hard enough in the first place. It's scary to all of a sudden be almost upside down, but what is crucial is that this verticality provides you the space to get your feet under your arms in a more fluid manner. Standing at this moment also puts the weight into the center/back of the board and aids in managing the drop and picking a clean line down the face. But even if you do not manage to get to your feet you have to commit to this vertical moment usually just to catch the wave. For some softer, spilling, mushy waves you'll have the luxury of just planing forward and in these cases I have been recommending that you get the board going down the line in the "upward dog" position, which is half way between standing and laying down. What is key here is that you're not doing this at the bottom of the wave. If you're down there it's too late for you to get across. You must go to the side at the top and from the beginning. This, like committing to the vertical drop, requires a lot of timing and positioning. You need to move yourself to the apex of the peak -- the point of most power -- to enable an easy entry. Sounds simple but it takes a lot of work and requires that ever-important paddling foundation. 

Another thing I mentioned to a student this week, is that sometimes gifting yourself surfy treats is a good way to stay amped for your next time out. This could be a short john wetsuit (or any wetsuit really), a surf dvd, a bikini, a bar of wax, a magazine or book, just anything surf related. You can get stuff like this online or at a local shop and this kind of contribution to your surf 401K, if you will, will pad your stoke and keep you anxious to get out again. 

On my end, when not taking off under the lip, I'm trying to commit to the drop a little bit more in growing my business. This week and next I will roll out/ announce Conatus Surf Club lessons in Montauk with Chris Blotiau (if you're interested right now simply email me about setting something up out there) and Conatus Surf Club retreats in Costa Rica for this winter (Dec/Jan) at Rancho Diandrew. I'm really excited about both of these growth opportunities, which ultimately stem from a desire to provide intensive surf training experiences for those who are serious and keen about their surfing journey. I will have blog posts about both of them very soon. 

This weekend it looks like we have another run of fun summer surf and fine weather. Remember to both commit to the vertical and stay safe! 

What Does 'Conatus' Mean Again? Lesson 1

Salutations fellow seekers of aquatic joy! This week's post is about the word 'conatus'. I know that I have a blurb about this in the 'about' page, but I think it is worthwhile to give some more concrete historical and philosophical background. I will not be able to cover the entire history of the word or its philosophical use in this one post. I will just start with a few basics.

First of all, as mentioned, I take the term from the philosophy of Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632. His family was of Portuguese Jewish decent. They were, however, "maranos", that is "crypto Jews" who professed to be Catholic during the Inquisition. Because of his radical ideas about the nature of God Spinoza himself was excommunicated from his Orthodox Jewish community and the Catholic Church (strangely enough the most extant version of the Ethics have recently been found in a Vatican vault). Knowing his ideas were potentially life threatening, Spinoza never accepted a job in an academic institution. Instead he preferred to work as a lens grinder in a optics shop. Thus he was deeply concerned with convex and concave surfaces, reflections, and helping people to see more clearly.

Spinoza wrote exclusively in Latin, the academic lingua franca of the Middle Ages and early modernity (Enlightenment). His three major works are the Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics), Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (Treatise of the Emendation of the Intellect), and the Tractatus Politicus (Political Treatise). The word 'conatus' features in all of these texts, but most prominently in the Ethics, which is a metaphysical treatise that is written in geometric order, using definitions, axioms, postulates, demonstrations, correlatives, and scholia. The Ethics is divided into five parts: I. De Deo (Of God); II. De Natura et Origine Mentis (Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind); III. De Origine et Natura Affectuum (Of the Origin and the Nature of the Affects); IV. De Servitute Humana Seu De Affectuum Viribus (Of Human Bondage, or The Powers of the Affects); V. De Potentia Intellectus Seu De Libertate Humana (Of the Power of the Intellect, or On Human Freedom). 

The verb 'conatur' and its corresponding noun 'conatus' is used heavily in the third section (Of the Origin and the Nature of the Affects). I will list some of the passages in Latin below and will provide their corresponding translations. I will not be able to fully explain how these postulates fold upon previous axioms and definitions and I will in most cases also leave out some of the very wordy demonstrations and correlatives. Again, this is just a brief journey to the tip of the iceberg. 

III.P7: Conatus, quo unaquaeque res in suo esse perserverare conatur, nihil est praeter ipsius rei actualem essentiam. 

The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing. 

Here 'conatus' is translated as 'striving' and 'conatur' as 'strives' or 'to strive'. This postulates that whatever it is within (and possibly without) us constitutes essentially what we are. What we are is something that "strives to persevere in its being". What Spinoza means by 'being' has to do with his definition of God and time, finitude and infinitude. It is important that he believes that being exists sub specie aeternitatis, under a type of eternity (definitely one of my favorite mantras to repeat when surfing). Our essence is both finite and infinite (finite from an infinite source) and we are constantly striving for the infinitude that essentially constitutes what we are.

III.P9.Schol.: Hic conatus cum ad mentem solam refertur, voluntas appellatur; sed cum ad mentem et corpus simul refertur, vocatur appetitus, qui proinde nihil aliud est, quam ipsa hominis essentia, ex cuius natura ea, quae ipsius conservationi inserviunt, necessario sequuntur; atque adeo homo ad eadem agendum determinatus est. Deinde inter appetitum et cupiditatem nulla est differentia, nisi quod cupiditas ad homines plerumque referatur, quatenus sui appetitus sunt conscii; et propterea sic definiri potest, nempe cupiditas est appetitus cum eiusdem conscientia. Constat itaque ex his omnibus, nihil nos conari, velle, appetere neque cupere, quia id bonum esse iudicamus; sed contra nos propterea aliquid bonum esse iudicare, quia id conamur, volumus, appetimus atque cupimus. 

When this striving is related only to the mind, it is called will; but when it is related to the mind and body together, it is called appetite. This appetite, therefore, is nothing but the very essence of man, from whose nature there necessarily follow those things that promote his preservation. And so man is determined to do those things. Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of their appetite. So desire can be defined as appetite together with consciousness of the appetite. From all this, then, it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, desire it.  

All that is good in life, is good because we strive for it, not because it is worth striving for. The striving alone, the 'conatus', is what constitutes its goodness. That status of goodness is still under question. It turns out to be defined as an 'increase in joy', but you will have to wait until the next post for that to be explained. For now, I think I have at least given you some context as to the word 'conatus' and how it is roughly used in Spinoza's philosophy.

You will notice that I have bolded where it is used in the Latin passages. It is written differently in different places depending on whether it is used as a verb or a noun, and in Latin nouns and verbs take different endings depending on their status in the sentence. I want to point out here that learning surfing is very similar, and in fact quite related to, learning any other kind of grammar. I have written a paper about that that I will certainly share down the road. And I hope that from this (not so) little blog post you can start to see why I would want to associate my method of teaching surfing with the word 'conatus'.

To sum up, I like the concept of striving as constitutive both of what it is that we are and of our search for the good. I believe that this striving takes an almost infinite amount of forms (or modes in Spinoza's language), and the mode that I most relate to is that one that takes place in the ocean, somewhere between finitude and infinitude. 

New addition to the Conatus quiver, a Malwitz 9'0", sub specie aeternitatis. Photo:  Julien Roubinet  @julesrbt 

New addition to the Conatus quiver, a Malwitz 9'0", sub specie aeternitatis. Photo: Julien Roubinet @julesrbt