Making Space for Fun Under Capitalism

"My skill as a surfer didn’t matter—what mattered was my willingness to structure my life around the pursuit of fun over work in some small way."

Kate Davis Jones is a novelist, jock, and occasional EMT based in Raleigh, NC.

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Three dolphins breached for a breath as I was standing atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific; their dorsal fins sluiced through the surface of the deep turquoise water. From the cliff’s height the ocean’s opalescent depths stunned: the islands of kelp hovering submerged, the dark currents winding eel-like, the muddy froth of the breakers crashing into the rocky beach. “You know,” my friend Jake said after a moment of delighted stillness, “they say sea mammals aren’t really a progression of evolution—like, they came to land and then decided to go back to the water. They devolved.” The evidence of this is in the dolphin’s skeletal structure, its pelvis that could in theory accommodate legs and its phalange-like fin bones. 

Jake is a surfer. Like me he came to the sport late in life (early thirties is late in surf age), doomed to be eternally upstaged by the young rippers on shortboards chewing up breaks at every decent wave along the coast. We’d surfed a bit in the week prior. He introduced me to California point breaks riddled with stingrays, to the cold water shocking through my wetsuit meant for the warmer waters of the Atlantic, to the kelp and the rocks and the storied history and yes, to the dolphins.

I started surfing five years ago, in my mid-twenties. It’d happened by accident, sparked by a memoir, Barbarian Days by Bill Finnegan, in which the author pursues fun with a nearly religious fervor. The intensity of his fixation made me both envious and curious—what was it about this sport that could drive a certain type of person to build their world around it?  I’d spiral into YouTube surf footage for hours, and when that didn’t scratch the itch, a very kind friend with an extra board and a truck finally allowed me to try it myself.

At the time I was miserable. After graduating college, I’d taken the first salaried job I could find: a low-level operations role in digital advertising. It was a jarring shift from my college idealism, a new world of long hours, abrasive clients, and meaningless work. After eighteen months, I couldn’t take it anymore. In desperation, I quit and picked up two service industry jobs to make ends meet.

The suffering that had driven me from advertising was not the brutal workload alone but the fact that it was, as David Graeber coined, a bullshit job. No one likes digital ads. I was busting my ass to create an end product that was actively making the world worse for $33k a year. For all its downsides—and there were a lot—restaurant work wasn’t bullshit. Restaurant work required me to exist tangibly within my community, and doing it filled a basic human need. People don’t need ads. They do need to eat. While it wasn’t fulfilling work, it wasn’t actively sucking the life out of me.

But I still struggled with how to create a meaningful life—how did one do that under capitalism? I had no clue. I had a college education and a handful of skills. I was supposed to have dreams and goals and ambitions. Yet there was nothing I wanted to pursue. In restaurants, my exploitation as a worker was obvious, front-and-center, instead of condescendingly obscured by nonprofit mission statements. I wanted meaning, but I also wanted autonomy, and I wanted to face each day maybe not with excitement but maybe with slightly less dread, and paid work offered none of those things.

As the machine of wage labor ground me under its wheels I began to feel hopeless. I saw my choices as impoverishment in a job I could stand or soul death in a job I hated. Restaurants at least gave me the benefit of odd weekdays off, and in those uncrowded days I started chasing glimmers of fun as a survival mechanism—hits of intoxicating pleasure to carry me through the misery of my shifts. Surfing fit the bill. It was so fun, overwhelmingly so, and everything else fell by the wayside. I thought about the future in ten-day forecast chunks, in swell patterns and Surfline live cams. The more I surfed, the more obsessed I became. I stopped thinking about my restaurant jobs as a temporary stop on some winding path to some mysterious unknown career. I was having so much fun in the waves, I began to think that I could be happy in restaurants forever if it allowed me to surf on the regular.

I was so sick of looking for meaning in work and coming up empty. I wanted to look for meaning elsewhere. Yet it felt wrong—or somehow overly self-indulgent—to focus on surfing. I had the college education and the handful of skills. I was supposed to be making the world a better place or whatever, not selfishly spending every spare moment chasing waves.

In my therapist’s office I finally admitted it: I didn’t care about work anymore. I just wanted to surf.

I expected her to laugh. I was pushing thirty. I had to figure something out. 

“Well,” she said, “what if you just surfed?”

So for a few years that’s all I did. When the conditions were good, I went. I missed shifts. I showed up late and sunburned and unshowered. I flipped my head over in the cafe kitchen and let seawater drain from my nose. I burned myself on the espresso machine, clumsy and sun-stupid, working five-hour shifts after six-hour sessions. But I wanted to surf. 

I was slightly happier. I stopped looking for purpose in work, and I started looking for work that would allow me to surf more. It wasn’t a purpose, but it was a counterweight to capitalism’s demands of hyper-productivity and work-as-meaning.

Beginning surfing as an adult is an exercise in humility. It forced me to immediately confront my own limitations, both physical and in my lifestyle. I was never going to be great at surfing. Most likely I was never even going to be good. But I didn’t have to be good to access the benefits (fun, delight, ephemerality, terror) and I found I was willing to rearrange my life for just the briefest taste of those qualities. The sensation of the wave picking up the board was as close to meaning as I’d ever been. Yet at my level it was a rare feeling. Was it worth prioritizing?

Just that taste—connection, joy, purpose—was enough to start to clear out the cobwebs in my head. Surfing felt like being alive. Working did not. My skill as a surfer didn’t matter—what mattered was my willingness to structure my life around the pursuit of fun over work in some small way. It was a break from the drudgery, a way to imagine a life in which the center of existence was not production, but pleasure. It seems simple. But feeling it is different than knowing it. Life is bearable when there is a secret heart to it; surfing rekindled a love of the world amid structures that seem to exist to kill that off.

Overlooking the Pacific I thought, maybe I don’t have to be a good surfer. Maybe I just want to dip my toes in. Maybe I don’t want to dedicate my life to surfing, but I want to consider what it would mean to do so—so I can quantify it, translate it, to try to be a conduit for what surfing lights up in me with such ferocity that I sometimes turn away from the sensation. In the physical it manifests when I’m on the beach, holding my board as I approach or leave the break: a cold asphyxiating swoop of nausea. It feels like longing, so powerful and directionless it makes my knees unsteady. There’s no reason for it, no thought that accompanies it. Just the board under my arm, the waves crashing, the inexplicable yearning. It feels like briefly tasting a different reality. Like possibility. It’s weighty. It feels good. It feels good to feel. 

“I always thought I had a death drive around surfing,” I said to Jake as the dolphins submerged and re-emerged. I thought I had a bit of a suicidal leaning in general, that I’d never be able to find a way to live happily under capitalism, and eventually something would crack. “But maybe it’s not that. It’s a devolution drive.”

“Devolving,” Jake said. “The dolphins are onto something.”

That odd surf-yearning is not a depressive urge; it’s a pull backward and inward, toward a more creaturely way of being. A return to the animal. Despite the professionalization and Olympicization of the sport, surfing achievements are still nebulous. Surfing requires attention. The surfer has to be in tune with the ocean, the weather, the bathymetry, the other surfers at the break. You have to be flexible to prioritize it. If the conditions are good, you drop everything, and you go.

Surfing reorganized my relationship with the world. It teaches harmony with nature, demanding an understanding of its shifts and nuances. It forces me to surrender control in the face of the conditions. It demands adaptability—a nimble mind and sturdy body. It demands resilience in the face of failure. It demands faith in the truism that conditions will change. What it offers in return: pure fucking fun. Moments of awe and incredulity and disbelief and joy, all folded up into hours and hours of fun. For all the fancy words and the hefty language I apply to it, at the root of it it’s just that—fun. Now, I think, maybe that’s what meaning is: fun and connection entwined. 

Since I started surfing, I’ve lost some interest in being productive. I don’t need as many things. I just need more time—time to have fun, shared in whoops and hollers with friends. Time to experience the world as it is now. Time to develop useless skills that allow me to play in more ridiculous ways. I have some goals now. Miraculously, I have a writing job. I have a community. I have things I want to achieve and do. Surfing isn’t the center of my life. But if I needed it to be, it could be. My secret refuge. My escape route.

As the climate changes I surf more and I think more about surfing. I think about devolving. I want to rest my board wax-side down on the sand and sit beside it and watch the breaks until I can match the pace of the sets with my breathing. I want to devolve. I want to use less, need less, want for less. When a hurricane comes it brings a rad swell. I want to be able to surrender without giving up agency, the courage to find joy in catastrophe, because catastrophes will come, and I don’t know what they’ll be like. I will have to be nimble and resilient. When the swell comes I’ll go.

Actively surfing requires acceptance of the world and myself as we are. Structuring my life to include it requires imagining a life not so entirely controlled by capitalism. Surviving capitalism requires meaning-making outside of it. Imagining a society beyond it requires consistent, reparative hits of joy, in some form, to act as a balm to capitalism’s destructive forces.

To devolve is to engage: return to the animal body and see with all senses the reality of the world we live in, in all its horrific change and astonishing resilience, what author Rebecca Solnit calls the “inherent unknowability of the world.” How crazy to be in a world with waves.