Sobering Up and Firming Up
Murdering Mr. Softee: One man's trip from beating up gym equipment to Capoeira to surfing.
Sometime in my second year of recovery, I mentioned to my sponsor that I was on my way to the gym, and he said something like, “That’s good, a dog has to be run every day.”
I’m still not completely sure what he was implying about my breeding; all I knew was that I needed the release that exercise provided. I had had my last drink in February of 1990 and came in to recovery physically soft, weak and sedentary. I remember hearing a man in a meeting where I counted days talk about trying to break the machines at his gym in order to quell the anger and aggression that he felt. That sounded right to me, so I began to do it too. It was the happiest time of my day.
When I moved to New York City in 1991, I fell in with a crowd in recovery who were into yoga, and I started taking classes with them. I became very excited about the new things that I could do with my body. I was feeling physically and mentally strong for the first time that I could remember. Naturally I became obsessed with exercise and the novelty of physical exercise.
When she told me that it had been illegal in Brazil for many years and that there had even been a death penalty for practicing it, I knew that I had to learn this.
At the time, Tompkins Square Park was a showcase for whatever anybody in the East Village was doing. People were always playing music, juggling, practicing tai chi, painting, or getting stoned. One afternoon I was walking through the park with my girlfriend and came across a group of seven or eight people doing the oddest thing I had ever seen. They were standing in a circle about 10 feet across. Two of them were in the middle, engaged in a playful-looking fight that looked a little like break dancing. They were both smiling as they kicked at each other, contorting their bodies in astonishing ways to avoid their opponent’s feet. It was beautiful. One member of the group was playing a one-stringed bowlike instrument, and the others sang and clapped. I was amazed at the physical ability, the attitude of fun and the beautiful simplicity of the music. As I stood there gawking, my girlfriend explained to me that this was Capoeira—a Brazilian practice invented by slaves, a potentially lethal martial art disguised to look like dance. When she told me that it had been illegal in Brazil for many years and that there had even been a death penalty for practicing it, I knew that I had to learn this.
Happily, New York City is the place where you can find somebody to teach you anything, and the next day I went to my first Capoeira class. That began a five-year chapter in my life that changed everything, again. I had always been somewhat shy. By learning the rudimentary movements of Capoeira—cartwheels, handstands and backward somersaults—I began to overcome my shyness, hesitancy, and my intense awareness of being a white guy from the suburbs. These were huge obstacles, but soon my body fat disappeared, I got strong, and I learned to be very assertive. Each night, after a day at my Wall Street job, I tried to think of reasons not to go to class. I was tired, I was hurt, I couldn’t deal with the personalities, I was frightened. Most nights, I went anyway and afterward I was so high and so happy that I had gone.
I never did get very good at Capoeira, although there were some games and some moves I made that I was happy with. And there were one or two scores that got settled in the circle; alcoholics can’t always let go of resentments. After five years of playing and training, fatigued with always being injured and exhausted, I lost my mojo and stopped playing. I still regret that sometimes.
A year or two later I took my son, who was 11 at the time, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a vacation. Surfing is a big thing there, and I had always wanted to try it. I booked a lesson, thinking that this would be a great father/son activity. The teacher gave us each a wetsuit and explained on dry land how to paddle along with some basic safety tips. Duly informed, we paddled out into the ocean.
As I pushed into my first wave, and felt the board accelerate and start to glide, I had the absolute realization that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I had always spent time on the water—I'd sailed competitively, but grown tired of both racing and the expense of all the gear involved. Surfing was so simple and elemental—just the surfer and the surfboard in the ocean. It reminded me of the sensation when I made that first decision to change my life: The power of the waves, even the small ones, is an enormous force that can’t be controlled or manipulated, only accommodated. You admit you are powerless, and you suddenly become more powerful.
And then there is the zen-like aspect of it; when I go for a wave there is absolutely nothing else on my mind. I loved surfing immediately. Though, like getting sober, the first year or so was full of self-conscious frustration, while I got the knack of learning how to catch a wave, let alone ride one.
That was a dozen years ago, and I still surf whenever I can get to a beach, at least 10 months out of the year. New York City is close to a lot of great breaks and with a collection of wetsuits it’s possible to be in the ocean almost year round. There's the fringe benefit of those winter trips to warmer climates and even better waves. No matter what has gone wrong in life lately, a session in the ocean makes it all go away. Everything has been a step in the right direction—from backward somersaults to wiping out. And I know I’ll be doing this until I’m no longer around.
James Graham is an artist in New York