KOOK Q&A WITH PETER HELLER


Q: Why’d you decide to embark on this adventure?  How’d you come up with surfing?

PH: I think a lot of people nurture a secret dream of dropping everything and going off to a tropical paradise and learning to surf. Of getting strong and glossy and swooping down a crashing a giant, finding some communion with the sea. I did, all my life. I also wanted to be Elvis. Oh, well. But I loved to kayak and ski and I thought, “I’m getting creakier and creakier and I better go for it.” We can at least try to fulfill a dream. And I don’t mind making a fool of myself. I have a good friend who had been transferred to Huntington Beach, California—Surf City, USA—and he’d just had a tough year in his job as a corporate lawyer. He had a vacation coming up and asked if I’d come out and learn to surf with him. That’s how the adventure began. Two old friends without much sense.

Q: What’s the hardest part about being a kook?

PH: Let’s see…there’s getting pummeled without mercy, time and again. There are bruises, chipped teeth, surfboards hitting you in the head. A crotch full of sand, sunburned ears, chafed ribs. There is choking, stinging eyes, getting driven to the sand. That’s the easy stuff. Much more threatening are the other surfers. The guys who actually know how to do it. All that generous Aloha Spirit stuff is mostly a myth. Surfers are aggressive, territorial, predatory. They are hunting their ride and if you get in their way, or worse—paddle up and start talking to them like it’s a cocktail party—you will pay. When a surfer yells, “Kook!” it is usually preceded by a string of unprintable epithets. It can hurt your feelings. And then you may only get one sweet ride all morning. The crazy thing is that you just want to go back. It’s all you want to do.

Q: The subtitle of your book is What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave.  How does surfing relate to love and life?

PH: Ahh, you must read the book, Grasshopper. I will say one thing: the ocean has a rhythm. She is without mercy, but also forgiving. She accepts you however you show up. She demands the best of you. If you want to dance with her you have to fully commit. You have to have faith. You have to work hard. And you have to learn how to let go, to give yourself over to something much greater than you.

Q: What was the greatest lesson you took away from this experiment?

PH: There is nothing, absolutely nothing more fulfilling than taking a great risk and going after a long held dream. Learning to love someone is pretty great, too.

Q: So you conquered surfing.  Has it inspired you to take on any other adventures and, hey, do you still surf?

PH: I got my pilot's license in twenty days in Montana.  I learned from one of the greatest bush pilots in the world, which was a little like learning tennis from Roger Federer.  And then I bought a jaunty, 55 year old Cessna whose engine decided it had had enough right over the mountains of the Continental Divide.  That was exciting.  It's got a brand new engine now...Just got invited to jump with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq and I got all excited.  I figured learning to use a parachute might be a good idea with such an old plane.  I was ready to go and then one of the command generals nixed it.  Oh, well.  There are adventures everywhere we turn.  Yes, I still surf!  I’m totally hooked.  I go down to Mexico for at least a month a year and get hammered.

Q: In KOOK you also describe the environmental aspect of surfing – namely, “the margins of our shrinking earth.”  How can surfers and non-surfers alike help our oceans?

PH: That first step is awareness. When you are surfing in 2010, you can’t help but be aware of the ocean and the coasts in trouble. Then there is responsibility, a decision to make taking care of these things that you love a part of your everyday life. Once that decision is made, there is no limit to what we each can do. For surfers, the Surfrider Foundation is an excellent and very effective place to start. Seafood Watch is an organization that helps us decide the best, most sustainable fish to consume. Then there is the whole gamut of organizations to get involved with, from the more radical like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace, to long established NGOs like the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. I think it’s very important to keep in mind: have fun while being active in helping the oceans and the earth.