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Surfing and Sushi: Some notes on obsession and authenticity

I have a friend who is obsessed with TFC, the Toronto professional football (soccer) club. He doesn’t just follow the team like a normal grownup person, happy when they win and a bit sad when they lose. To a large extent, the sun in his life rises and sets with the fortunes of the team. As I put it to him in an email a while ago, I wish I cared about anything in my life as much as he cares about TFC.

Because aside from raising my kids (which is more of a mania than anything, and doesn’t count regardless), there is nothing in my life that plays the sort of role that TFC plays in my friend’s life, nothing similar that dominates my thoughts, focuses my attention, structures my work life, frames my worldview, and determines my relative happiness.

It wasn’t always this way. From age 7-10 my head swam with Star Wars and little else. In middle school there were sports and friends and computers, then later, sports and the occasional band. But aside from volleyball in high school, and philosophy  in my twenties, and the occasional girl, there hasn’t been much else along those lines. It isn’t that my life is empty, far from it. But for better and worse, it’s been pretty much empty of life-consuming obsessions.

What I do have is a bit of a meta-obsession with other highly obsessed people. The obsessed personality is fascinating, and I like to read books or see movies about people whose lives are dominated by a single thing, especially in the areas of food (usually Japanese), music (rock or punk), and sports (mostly surfing or skateboarding).  I don’t know if it says anything about anything that I was a lousy skateboarder, have surfed once, and was a terrible guitar player in a bad high school band. (I do make pretty good ramen though.)

Anyway, if you’re looking for a guide to my meta-obsessions, you can check out the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi or the memoir/cookbook by Ivan Orkin subtitled “love, obsession, recipes”. In the relatively recent rock doc category, there is the Nirvana documentary Montage of Heck and the one about Amy Winehouse that came out in 2015. You should also check out Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants.

But what really floored my last year was the book Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by the New Yorker writer William Finnegan. I won’t try to give a summary -- there’s a good review here -- apart from saying that it’s the single finest essay on surfing, on life, and on obsession that I’ve ever read. Most pieces I’ve read or movies I’ve seen on these subjects leave you convinced that, if you haven't spent your life as a surf bum, or a skateboarder, or a ramen chef, or what have you, then you've wasted it. What Finnegan does is make clear the love-hate relationship he’s had with surfing, what it has cost him and why the obsession has been so problematic.  

Every obsession, whether it’s sushi or surfing or anything else, has its gods, its priests, its canon, its approved rituals. And where they tend to become cults is in their extreme hostility to attention from outsiders, the secretive nature of their practices, and the utter devotion given some of the top practitioners. And in many ways, that cultishness comes to tragedy -- most obviously in the case of rock musicians who succumb to the over-the-top lifestyles that are the mark of the truly committed.

But as surf god Laird Hamilton put it in Riding Giants:

If you applied the same amount of devotion to a religious pursuit, do you think anyone would call you a “religious bum”? Probably not. When you consider that surfing is really more than anything a faith, and that devotion to that faith becomes paramount in your life, there’s no such thing as a surf bum.

He’s completely right, of course. But it’s precisely this conception of an obsession as a faith, and one of overriding importance to the way a life is lived, that makes it so problematic for us normals. To put it bluntly, what stands in the way of the pursuit of an obsession is a concern for status.

Whatever else it amounts to, pursuing an obsession requires flouting a lot of the standards that govern “regular” society, and a great deal of the stuff that most of us do to maintain appearances has to go by the wayside. This includes, but is far from limited to: holding a steady job, committing to a relationship, being a good and consistent parent,  keeping in touch with friends, dressing like a normal person, keeping regular hours, keeping up with non-obsessed friends and family, watching what you eat, maintaining your health, and keeping up with the news.

For the obsessed personality, some or all of these must be sacrificed (or better, merely abandoned) in the name of the obsession. At this point, you cease to become someone who surfs, or someone who cooks, or someone who plays music, and change into a surfer, a chef, or a musician. These are identities many of us could never adopt, not just out of lack of talent, but also out of a deep reluctance to unchain ourselves from the tacit norms and status games that keep us in the loop of regular society.

A lot of my writing, from Rebel Sell to the Authenticity Hoax and since, has been devoted to arguing that a lot of behaviours or worldviews that purport to be about rejecting traditional status markers are actually just disguised versions of those status markers, transposed into a political or spiritual key. What I find interesting about obsessed personalities is that they alone seem to be the real deal: people who simply DGAF. At which point, I’m led to the conclusion that the only true authentics are the obsessed.