Return to the Sea
Following are excerpts from new books by Weekly contributors Steven Kotler and Ernest Hardy. Both authors will be reading on Thursday, May 25, 6 p.m., at Boardner’s, 1652 N. Cherokee Ave., Hollywood.
When I think back on my time in New Mexico, one night stands out clearer than most. A legendary South American shaman had come through town, and my girlfriend decided what I needed most was a one-on-one soul-healing session with the man. His usual fee for such work was $700, but he had a past relationship with the crystal store and as a favor agreed to waive it in my case. So I arrived at a small cottage in the hills and was greeted by the tallest man I had ever seen in real life, extremely pale, skinny as a rail, dressed in beige trousers, a purple-and-green plaid golf shirt, and a gargantuan necklace carved from human bone. I was stripped naked and laid out on a long table. Every inch of my body was covered with over a half-ton of medicine blankets, eagles’ feathers, owl claws, tree bark, sacred river stones, sacred mountain stones, crystals of all sizes, power objects of all sorts, including a petrified raccoon penis. Lights were shut off, candles lit, the thermostat felt pegged over 100. Two women walked into the room. They had come to perform psychic-energy work, were of indeterminate age, dressed head-to-toe in white cotton. Performing psychic-energy work seemed to involve standing about five feet back from the table and wiggling their fingers in my general direction. A Peruvian Indian in a black loincloth showed up next. Peruvian Indians are generally diminutive in stature. Standing next to the shaman, this guy looked like a dwarf. The dwarf sat down in a corner and pulled out a set of tribal drums and began to beat his fingers raw. The shaman himself towered above me, chanting in a language I had never heard before, his eyes rolled so far back into his head that only the whites were visible. It was too hot, too strange, the drumming was getting louder, the chanting was getting louder, the finger wiggling was verging on semaphore. I was starting to feel like my sacred soul-healing session was being scripted by David Lynch. Then I started to lose consciousness. I had one last thought before I passed out: What if my mother could see me now?
If I had a lick of common sense, it would have ended there. It didn’t end there. In the coming years, there were ashrams, monasteries, strange teas, strange mushrooms, Sanskrit chants, Native American medicine men with headdresses made from whole otters, folks on the run from the law, folks on the run from much worse. I signed on for the full tour. It lasted for years. By the time I made it back to college, I could sit in the full lotus for six hours at a time, but that was about it. I never, not once, achieved a mystical anything.
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It wasn’t that I needed all that much, simply proof of concept. I wanted something, anything really, that felt like a spiritual experience. Not that I had any idea what a spiritual experience was supposed to feel like, but I was pretty certain this was the kind of thing I would recognize when it happened. It never happened. Over the course of the next 10 years, I lost interest. I still hoped that there was a place where exalted magics were possible, but I no longer lived in that part of the world. Since I didn’t go in for the big-invisible-man-in-the-sky theory, there wasn’t a whole lot left. Life wasn’t that mysterious after all. Then I got good and sick and stayed in bed for years and might have been there still, but one fine spring day, a friend called and asked if I wanted to go surfing — and that’s when things got a little peculiar.
On the day he called, I wasn’t thrilled about getting back in the ocean. It had been 10 years since I’d been on a board and I had no serious plans for returning. Even if you ignore my last surf experience — the near drowning in Bali — the sport had never been much fun for me. I’d learned to surf in San Francisco, where the water’s cold and the waves serious. At Ocean Beach, just paddling out often felt like a life-threatening experience. I remember days when I never even made it to the lineup, forget about catching a ride. The rides there were often short, often mean, the currents treacherous. After a few years of little progress, I stopped trying. Some of this was frustration, most was memory.
The memory was of Chris Marchetti, the man who taught me to surf. At the time of my instruction, Chris was 23 years old and given to unusual methods. “Show it to me, motherfucker” was often the extent of his surfing advice. Out of habit, he liked to holler such advice. A few years before, he’d been the coxswain on the famed University of Wisconsin crew team. That team had 48 trophies in their glass case, including the 1990 National Championship, won with Chris shouting them on. He always liked a good shout. When the ocean would flatten between sets, Chris liked to scream Bring It On at the horizon. Even if you’re not superstitious, you don’t scream at something that covers three-quarters of the planet. Chris just didn’t care. It was often frightening, the way he loved to paddle into waves far beyond his abilities, gleefully seeking out the worst wipeouts imaginable. He said he wanted to see what would kill him. In the end, it wasn’t the waves that got that chance.
Chris was cut off while riding his motorcycle in the half-light of the early morning one Easter Sunday. He laid 25 feet of skid marks across that San Francisco intersection and then laid his head into the side of a bright-yellow tow truck. He never left the bike, his hand still gripped the throttle. His neck had snapped on impact. For weeks afterward, his friends would say that when he saw what was coming, he lowered his head, gunned that throttle and screamed, “Bring it on.”
After Chris died, for most who knew him, surfing was just never the same. I would occasionally give it a go, but it never felt right. My trip to Bali was the very last of those occasions. Years passed; I moved on to other activities, Lyme disease among them. It took the doctors a very long while to figure out what was wrong with me. Much of that time I spent thinking about Chris’ last few seconds on the planet, thinking about what it meant to shout at the inevitable. The day that my friend called to invite me to go surfing was a day near the tail end of my second year with Lyme. I had already lost 25 pounds, had already lost much more. My doctors had told me there was no way to know if I was strong enough to do anything unless I tried to do something. They claimed I wasn’t going to get any sicker, or not in a permanent fashion, but that wasn’t saying much. Truthfully, I went surfing because I was already done. My ass had been kicked but good. Illness had won. I could no longer write; I could barely walk across a room. Long ago I had decided that given the right set of impossible circumstances, calling it quits was always an option. I went surfing because I had been contemplating the possibility of suicide for months and decided I could try one more detour before heading down that route. I went because that’s what Chris would have done.
My friend took me to Sunset Beach. Unlike its Hawaiian namesake, California’s version is a beginner’s wave predominantly peopled by geriatrics, the unskilled, the terrified. Most learn there and never go back. The waves are too soft and too slow, and on the day we went there was no swell in sight. The surf was barely 2 feet high, but the water was warm and the tide low, and I could almost wade to the lineup. I sat out there for about 30 seconds before a wave came. Because it was a crap day at a crap break, there were no other takers. I spun my board around, paddled twice and was on it. For the first time in nearly two years, and just for one wave-riding instant, I felt the thrum of life, the possibility of possibility, and maybe that was enough.
I don’t remember anything else about that ride, except that when it was over, I wanted another and another and another. Five waves later, I wasn’t just exhausted, I was disassembled. Those five waves took me 15 days in bed to recover from, but on the 16th I drove back for more. The waves were still small, the water still warm. I caught five more waves and again spent two weeks recovering. But I kept coming back, and slowly, very slowly, I started to feel better. At a time when everything else was gone, when nothing made sense and nothing worked, when suicide seemed a damn viable option, surfing saved my life — and I wanted to know why.?
From West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief, due June 13 from Bloomsbury, 224 pages, $24 hardcover.
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