Love and Skateboarding: An Ollie at the Ends of the Earth

Photo by Tim Libretti
Our friend Dr. Tim Libretti had written another piece for his Fatherhood in Divorce series. For those of you that skateboard or have children that skateboard there is a lot more to it than riding a piece of wood with four wheels attached to them. 
Many years ago some Mennonite friends of mine invited me to their church for their baby daughter’s dedication ceremony.  While I cannot really speak to the finer points of Mennonite ritual, the ceremony, it might be fair to say, was the Mennonite version of a baptism, though no water was involved. 

The child received a blessing, and the parents, among perhaps other promises, confirmed themselves in their commitment to follow their daughter, in the words of the pastor, to “the ends of earth” in helping her fulfill her mission on this planet, whatever it turned out to be.

To the ends of the earth. The phrase conjured for me Shel Silverstein’s drawing on the cover of his classic poetry book Where the Sidewalk Ends, which depicts, as I remember it, a child on the thin edge of rocky cliff on his hands and knees looking down into the abyss where not just the sidewalk but the world itself ends; or I thought of my son and I in big parkas out beyond the pale of civilization in a sub-arctic landscape.
In any case, what a powerful directive! To the ends of the earth. While I have only a vague memory of other elements of the service, what stayed with me with indelible clarity was this phrase, embodying rather dramatically the idea that a parent’s chief role is to accompany one’s child to anywhere and everywhere, lending all support possible, in helping her complete her mission, fulfill what she is meant to do in her life with her gifts and talents.  The notion that the objective of parenting is to cultivate a child’s full potential at all costs for the benefit of the world is beyond beautiful to me and, I like to think, has served as a guiding, indeed foundational, principle in raising and relating to my own boys.
As often happens with our basic principles, though, they can disappear among the fog of demands and compromises of everyday life until we recognize the need to reconnect with them.  Clearly the phrase that had enchanted me, urging me to attend my boys to the “ends of the earth” had receded from my consciousness a couple of years ago when I was in the middle of a divorce and just trying to get through each day hoping my two sons would come out the other side of the divorce whole, full of worries each day that they wouldn’t and not knowing what was ahead.  The boys’ mother and I were still living under the same roof and had not yet told them what was in store.
It was in this space of time when these words, this phrase to the ends of the earth, revisited me with full force, as my oldest son Caleb proposed a pilgrimage of sorts.
Caleb had been begging me to take him on a road trip from our home in Chicago to Ollie’s Skate Park in Florence, Kentucky. I was hesitant and often dismissive.  An avid skateboarder—well, really, an obsessive skateboarder, which is a redundancy, as anybody who has a kid immersed in skateboarding culture knows—Caleb would always share with me YouTube videos of his favorite skaters. We would watch skaters like Chris Chan, Johnny Geiger, Aaron Kyro, Andy Schrock, Jason Park and others perform—or attempt—ollies, kick-flips, tre flips, dragon flips, pop shove-its, hard flips, manuals, fakie flips and all manner of other tricks I can’t name (I may have even mis-named the tricks I mentioned).  
With him, I had fallen under the charm of these skaters who, in addition to being entertaining and talented skaters, were a charismatic bunch of personalities who engaged in all kinds of antics in their tight and supportive community of skaters. 

When Andy Schrock, the owner of the Revive and Force skateboarding brands, announced that his company would be hosting a meet and greet with all of the Revive skaters at Ollie’s Skate Park, no doubt the next step for Caleb was obvious. Of course he had to be there.     
We talked about it. We joked about it. Well, maybe I was the only one joking, not really entertaining that I would take him out of school to road trip from Chicago to Kentucky. I felt fairly stalled in my life as it was, paralyzed really, not knowing what was ahead and not really wanting to take another step to find out, worried the earth was crumbling under me.  Taking off to Kentucky, which meant taking time off of work and taking Caleb out of school not only just seemed to require too much energy I didn’t have, but it seemed irresponsible parenting. At this time, I was just trying to be the best parent I could.
A dear friend, though, convinced me to go, and after a time the thought of escaping my situation and spending time with Caleb on the road became increasingly appealing.  I would get away from it all, on the road with my CDs and my son where nothing could touch me.
And as it says in the book of Isaiah, “…and a little child shall lead them.”  And lead he did.
We had a great time on the road and hanging out at the hotel; and when we got to the skate park that Friday night, we—or at least I—experienced a magical vision.  As we pulled into the parking lot with hundreds of other cars, kids of all ages were pouring out of cars with their skateboards and hurrying into the park.  Caleb was an electric wire burning hot.  We saw all the “famous” skaters at another entrance on the other side of the parking lot, so we walked over there.  They were all warm and welcoming, excited that Caleb had come all the way from Chicago to skate with them.  Caleb had brought his dog-eared copy of a novel Andy Schrock had written about his own life growing up, and they chatted a bit about it. Andy happily signed it and seemed genuinely moved that Caleb had read it and responded to it.
The evening was already a success. Then we entered the park.  For the next few hours I found myself in a swarm of skaters amidst an endless landscape of rails, ramps, half-pipes.  I was amazed and in awe. Skaters would fly down ramps and lift their boards onto long rails they would slide across for twenty yards or fly off their boards high into the air while their boards flipped and spun, hoping to land back on the board.  Most of the time the skaters didn’t land the trick. To me, it seemed quite rare if they did. Instead, they would end up chasing their ricocheting board, picking it up, and trying again.  But there was never disappointment from the skaters themselves or from the other skaters watching—only joy, awe, encouragement and support.
Indeed, I remember at one point the major skaters put on an exhibition.  I commented to Caleb at one point that one of the revered skaters, Doug Desautels, never seemed to land a trick.  He looked at me puzzled and said, “They’re hard tricks, Daddy.”  I was the party pooper who had not absorbed the spirit of skating, the magic of Ollie’s.
The success of skating was in the creativity and endeavor, and in the community of support. It was about the means, not the end. Or, the end was the creative exercise, the act of imaginative endeavor and risk itself. Indeed, some time later I came across an article in The Onion with the headline “Nation’s Amateur Skateboarders Haven’t Landed Trick in 12 Years.” This article summed it all up.

I was in a place of incredible energy, creativity, and, above all, joy.  There was no judgment, only support and encouragement. Skaters found awe and inspiration in each other—in the try, the risk, the effort, the doing.

When they fell, they picked themselves and their boards up and skated again—for the fun of it.
I needed this experience.  In the midst of my second divorce, I was judging myself, feeling like a failure. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I hold a marriage and family together? But I looked at these skaters, who 99% of the time did not complete the trick, and I saw it wasn’t about completion; it was about the joy of the experience, of the endeavor. 

My first marriage lasted eight years and my second, twelve.  My second marriage gave me two beautiful and remarkable sons who have made my life more meaningful, adventurous, and day-to-day joyful than I could have ever imagined.  I remember what another dear friend of mine once said to me in counseling me through my second divorce. She said, “Think how lucky you are. You’ve fallen in love deeply twice in your life and been able to have that experience. How many people get that?”

These skaters, this park, to which I followed my son to the ends of the earth, inspired this perspective, this insight, in me. I needed it.

The words from Stephen Stills’ song Southern Cross filled my mind as I witnessed the energy and creativity of this skating scene:

Think about
Think about how many times I have fallen
Spirits are using me, larger voices callin’

Maybe comparing marriage to skateboarding trips seems trivial.
Well, one needs a story, and better to have a story about falling and getting up than a story about just messing up. 
I do notice I keep falling, and I keep getting up. And I manage to keep loving and finding love.
This is what I want my sons to see.  I guess, though, I don’t have to teach them. They are the ones teaching me.

I do want them to know I am trying hard to live the lesson Caleb took me to the ends of the earth to learn.
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