Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Surfing the Mid-Life Tsunami

During my 21st summer, I bought a motorcycle and rode the highways of North America with a friend. We sped to the west coast, took our time winding down to California, then picked up the pace again going through the American heartland back to Manitoba. It created a definite physical memory, but what I probably enjoyed most, at the time, was being a member of the fraternity. You never lacked for conversation or companionship on the road.

This pleasure had its limits, however. Our last day on the road, we had breakfast at a Denny's in Bismark, ND. We were joined by two middle-aged bikers, returning to Kansas after touring Alaska. We covered the usual topics: comparing different aspects of performance between bike brands, the varying levels of highway patrol law enforcement from state to state, weather patterns, etc. By this point in our trip, this was all unremarkable stuff; we'd had exchanges like this with similar strangers every day for the last three weeks. My friend and I wanted to get home. We were sick of the travel, the food, and especially each other.

Also: the rain.
I noticed another middle-aged fella a few booths down from us, craning to hear our conversation. He was with his wife and kids, and finally left them to sit with us. "You guys," he said, almost breathless, "what's it like, doing a road trip on motorcycle?"

"It's definitely something," said one of the guys from Alaska. "I seen things you never come across back where I hale from. Like this moose, for instance ..."

"But what does it feel like," implored Mr. Wife-and-Kids. "Is it, like, this tremendous feeling of freedom?"

I took a long look at the family he'd just left. I didn't have the capacity to give the kids much thought, but compared to many I'd seen they were well-behaved. They were all of the age (under 10) where they felt no shame expressing genuine affection for their father. As for the mother, the woman was undeniably beautiful. And she was a woman. Why would any guy with so much as half a brain leave her company for our sorry lot?

Is it, like, this tremendous feeling of freedom?

The question comes to mind nearly twenty years later, as I pick up Thad Ziolkowski's surfing memoir, On A Wave - the latest acquisition in my growing library of surfer prose. I'm only 60 pages into it, so we'll see if it lives up to its potential, but so far he's delivering the goods. I open the book, start reading, and in seconds I'm no longer a land-locked 40-year-old man, devoted husband and father of two. I'm an adolescent, surfing the Florida coast. And it's, like, this tremendous feeling of freedom!

So, quelle surprise: mid-life brings out yearnings for the unattainable, chief among them the wish to relive your adolescence as a knowledgeable and (marginally more) confident adult. Well it ain't gonna happen. And I'm not going to surf - Michael Blowhard's frank appraisal of taking surfing lessons in mid-life quickly dissuaded me of any such impulse. And the prospect of abandoning my wife and kids to chat up the surfers I encounter at Half-Moon Bay or Santa Cruz is downright laughable. I know full well where the better conversation lies.

When I think back to our self-invited table-guest (to what depths did that poor fool finally descend?), I realize I simply can't be bothered to embarrass myself with such abandon. The pleasant alternative to all that grief is, I think, following my grandfather's example by purchasing a wind-surfer for my modest Ontario-based lifestyle, and constraining myself to the vicarious pleasures of surfer prose.

Of course, most surfer prose is, like most surfer music, dreadful. But amid all the dross of predictable, cliche-ridden piffle exists some genuine gold. More on that later...

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