'Kook': Life's Lessons Learned On A Surfboard After sailing the Antarctic Sea and traversing the deepest Tibetan gorge, Peter Heller became a "kook," or beginner surfer. It was while surfing in Huntington Beach, Calif. that he caught a glimpse of his next great adventure: a trip down the West Coast, in search of the perfect wave. In Kook he tells the story of that journey, and what he learned along the way.

'Kook': Life's Lessons Learned On A Surfboard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128727677/128758356" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Author Peter Heller has followed eco-pirates through the Antarctic Sea to duel with Japanese whaling fleets. He's journeyed through the belly of the deepest Tibetan gorge. But it wasn't until he got into surfing that he found himself in over his head.


PETER HELLER: It gives you all of this and not a single stand-up ride time again, day after day. It gives you nothing back but tumbles, wipe-outs, thumpings, scares, and you return. You're glad to do it. In fact, you can think of nothing you'd rather do.


CORNISH: Peter, welcome to the show.

HELLER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: All right. So I'm going to start off with what I hope is not an insult, but to say that this whole surfing idea actually started with a midlife crisis, right?

HELLER: You know, I just did this big thing. You know, now, am I supposed to do another big thing or could I just do some little things for a while? And the phone rang, and it was a friend of mine who was a corporate lawyer. He'd been transferred from Chicago, where he was very happy, to Huntington Beach, Surf City, USA, and he asked me if I would come out and learn to surf with him.

CORNISH: And what I love about this is you guys basically just buy the shorts, buy the board and show up at the beach and kind of assume we'll be able to take this up pretty quickly.


CORNISH: And this is where you first hear the term kook, right?

HELLER: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, taking your board and trotting into the water at Huntington Beach would be sort of like, you know, you and I saying, let's go to Yankee Stadium, you know, hit some balls with the Yankees. It's, you know, it's just not done.

CORNISH: You bleeping kook. Get the bleep out of the water, you know, or I'm going to bleep you up. And it kind of hurt my feelings, really.

CORNISH: Well, what's the definition of that term? Give us the full sense, full impact of what was being hurled your way.

HELLER: Yeah, kook. I mean, it's a beginner, but it's not a neutral term. I mean, it's a clueless, hopeless beginner. It's the guy that paddles up to the other surfers at the lineup who are very quiet, you know, and just chatters away like it's a cocktail party and, you know, gives a rebel yell when he does manage to stand up for a split second and drops in on people, you know, when it's not his wave, cuts people off and collides and basically he's just a menace. And that was me.

CORNISH: What gave you the idea to go from being a complete kook to essentially at least not embarrassing yourself in front of the pros in six months? Because you decided to take out a six-month chunk of time.

HELLER: I just thought she was, you know - I loved her, and I thought, you know, if I invite her and we go on this trip down the coast of Mexico and try and learn from experts along the way, and I thought if I invite her, you know, maybe, you know, I could get to know her and maybe, you know, I could actually learn, you know, how to love someone else while I learned to surf.

CORNISH: You really kind of put herself out there with that.

HELLER: But - so I did that. You know, I invited her, you know, the surf, the love story, and then, you know, I found out there's this whole other element to the surf deal, which is, you know, the oceans are in big trouble, and that started to really dawn on me at the same time.

CORNISH: Now, as a journalist, you've covered whaling, pirates and the sea, but all of this has been, I guess, essentially from the surface. And in this book, you're not in a boat. I mean, you're in the water. You're actually, at one point, I think hanging out with sea lions. Talk about how surfing actually changed the way you see the ocean.

HELLER: And there's something about being on the ocean that way, you know, on a surfboard, you know, lying down on a surfboard. You feel this, you know, communion with the ocean, and the wave, the surfing part, actually becomes - for me, it became sort of like the cream. You know, it was like, that's cool that you could actually catch a wave and surf also, you know, on top of this.

CORNISH: Now, not to give away the ending here, but you actually now live on a lake or near a lake in Denver. And I was actually pretty surprised because I didn't think you'd walk away from surfing.

HELLER: You have to let go to a power that's greater than you. And I think, you know, those are really good things to practice, you know, if you want to live with someone else and have a good relationship. So they get drummed into you every day without, you know, meaning to.

CORNISH: Peter, thanks for talking with us.

HELLER: Thanks for having me. It was great.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.