Things changed after that between me and Mark. I stopped being mortified that people might mistake me for one of his acolytes. I was his Boswell, don’t you know. I interviewed him about his childhood—his father was a psychiarist in Beverly Hills. I cataloged the contents of his van. I followed him around at work, sitting in while he examined patients. He had been a bit of a prodigy when we were in college. After his father developed a tumor, Mark, who was pre-med, started studying cancer with an intensity that convinced many of his friends that his goal was to find a cure in time to save his father. As it turned out, his father didn’t have cancer. But Mark kept on with his cancer studies. His interest was not in fact in oncology—in finding a cure—but in cancer education and prevention. By the time he entered medical school, he had created, with another student, a series of college courses on cancer and coauthored The Biology of Cancer Sourcebook, the text for a course that was eventually offered to tens of thousands of students. He cowrote a second book, Understanding Cancer, that became a bestselling university text, and he continued to lecture throughout the United States on cancer research, education, and prevention. “The funny thing is, I’m not really interested in cancer,” Mark told me. “I’m interested in people’s response to it. A lot of cancer patients and suvivors report that they never really lived till they got cancer, that it forced them to face things, to experience life more intensely. What you see in family practice is that families just can’t afford to be superficial with each other anymore once someone has cancer. Corny as it sounds, what I’m really interested in is the human spirit—in how people react to stress and adversity. I’m fascinated by the way people fight back, by how they keep fighting their way to the surface.” Mark clawed at the air with his arms. What he was miming was the struggle to reach the surface through the turbulence of a large wave.
I felt myself floating between two worlds. There was the ocean, effectively infinite, falling away forever to the horizon. This morning it was placid, its grip on me loose and languorous. But I was lashed to its moods now. The attachment felt limitless, irresistible. I no longer thought of waves being carved in celestial workshops. I was getting more hardheaded. Now I knew they originated in distant storms, which moved, as it were, upon the face of the deep. But my utter absorption in surfing had no rational content. It simply compelled me; there was a deep mine of beauty and wonder in it. Beyond that, I could not have explained why I did it. I knew vaguely that it filled a psychic cavity of some kind—connected, perhaps, with leaving the church, or with, more likely, the slow drift away from my family—and that it had replaced many things that came before it. I was a sunburnt pagan now. I felt privy to mysteries.
The particulars of new places grabbed me and held me, the sweep of new coasts, cold, lovely, dawns. The world was incomprehensibly large, and there was still so much to see. Yes, I got sick sometimes of being an expatriate, always ignorant, on the outside of things, but I didn't feel ready for domestic life, for seeing the same people, the same places, thinking more or less the same thoughts, each day. I liked surrendering to the onrush, the uncertainty, the serendipity of the road.