Barbarian Days: My Midlife Standing Sideways


That vacation went quickly. I abandoned my brain. I laid in bed til late. I cleaned. I walked. I read.

What I read was: Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life by William Finnegan.

It starts with a tale of surf hobo hooliganism. Malibu in the 60s. Hawaii in the 70s. Samoa. Fiji. Turkey. Apartheid-era Capetown. I learned the origin story of Tavarua—a name I heard whispered like a mythic ghost through the hallways of Transworld when I worked there.

But I was more interested in the latter half of the book. That's where Finnegan brings us up to present, and the term "Surfing Life" takes on its full meaning. It was the most accurate, eloquent description of what it feels like to grow older and get worse at what you love to do (not surfing for me, but skateboarding for sure), and how that can be a steady decline into heartbreak—if you let it.

For me, this section was about identity. Does your identity as surfer, or skater, or rider, or rambler, become invalid as your skills become invalid? As your muscles and joints stiffen up, as you get sorer and tired-er, as you work more, travel more, garden more ... and skate less?


For me, there is a real grief to not skating as often or as well as I used to. Fear lurks in every sidewalk crack. Rather than remember the radness of pulling something, I tend to remember the time I ate shit—and how bad it hurt.

As they say, you can't take a sincere path without expecting heartbreak.

But at 41, I'm still a skateboarder. My relationship to it has changed though. I think it isn't about the act of skating (the tricks, the scene, the sessions) but instead it's the wanting it—that hardboiled desire to roll and be free—that makes you a skater.

Says Finnegan: "Now I'm one of those New Yorkers incessantly on the point of going back where I came from. But with me it's not a matter of packing up or staying on, but rather of being always half posed to flee my desk and ditch engagements in order to throw myself into some nearby patch of ocean at the moment when the waves and wind and tide might conspire to produce something ridable. That cracking, fugitive patch is where I come from."