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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reading the Northwest: Skateboard dad Neal Thompson wrestles with his parenting choices

By Martin Wolk For The Spokesman-Review

Neal Thompson didn’t set out to write a memoir of fatherhood. But with “Kickflip Boys,” he has succeeded in telling the intimate, warts-and-all story of how he and his wife, Mary, struggled to raise two rebellious, street-smart boys.

A journalist and author of five nonfiction books, Thompson comes to Spokane June 13 to share his story with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.

Thompson’s book will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced the conflict of parents and adolescent children, and especially with parents of children who don’t follow traditional expectations.

“I hope part of the message is to let yourself off the hook a little, which is what I wish I had figured out sooner myself,” he said in an interview. “Because I feel like I was hard on myself as a dad and felt bad more than I should have.”

“Kickflip Boys” book has its roots in an epic, cross-country skateboarding trip Thompson organized in 2011, when his boys were teens. He raised $4,500 in a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the “Sk8 the St8s” tour with his two sons, three of their skating buddies and a fellow skate dad. Thompson initially thought he would write a cultural history of skateboarding.

But as he filled notebook after notebook in the months and years after the trip ended, he realized that the real story was closer to home, and he began diving deeper into his own conflicted feelings about how he and his wife were bringing up the boys. Specifically, they wrestled with their decision to give the boys so much independence and freedom while sporadically trying to reel them back in.

“I did not go into it thinking I was going to be telling my story,” Thompson said. “But I realized that the sections that felt most real and most true to me were the sections that were about us as a family. And that was hard, to really delve into some of the difficult aspects of what I felt were my failures as a father.”

As the book developed into a memoir, Thompson called a family meeting to explain his intentions, and got the somewhat reluctant support of his wife and children. But even as he was writing, the story continued to unfold, with problems at school, visits to the emergency room and battles over teen drinking and pot smoking that were complicated by the legalization of marijuana in Washington.

The painfully honest story of this loving but struggling family has some shocking moments, even for parents familiar with the challenges of raising uncooperative adolescent children.

Skateboarding is at the heart of the story. The boys fell in love with the sport early on and were never happier than when they were exploring Seattle’s grittier neighborhoods, performing ollies, kickflips and other tricks in parking garages and off-limits concrete courtyards, dodging security guards.

Thompson and his wife Mary supported the boys’ obsession with skating as a seemingly healthy alternative to traditional sports like baseball or soccer, until adolescence hit and they saw their boys embrace a no-rules counterculture.

“We had to change our view of what their path through and out of high school was going to be,” he said.

As a former skater himself, Thompson says he treasures the years he shared with his boys and their obsession.

“I was happy to be part of it,” he said. “It was a real father-and-son experience – up to the point where they didn’t want me around anymore. But for a long time I was able to be with them and see their evolution through skating and whip out my video camera and make videos of them and really be part of it. … I feel fortunate to have had that time with them.”

Book notes from the region

Tale from the underground: Spokane native Taylor Zajonc will be reading at Auntie’s Bookstore on Wednesday from his new adventure novel “The Maw,” a thriller set in rural Tanzania, where a group of explorers is stranded hundreds of feet below the surface while exploring a mysterious system of caves. Zajonc, a Portland-based author of two previous novels, is a real-life adventurer who has traveled miles below the ocean’s surface to explore deep-sea shipwrecks as a maritime historian.

Report from Silicon Valley: Portland-based author Corey Pein is getting attention for his new book, “Live Work Work Work Die,” an investigative report into the culture of Silicon Valley. Pein traveled to the Bay Area under the thin cover of trying to market a ridiculous-sounding idea – a service that would work to unionize one company at the behest of its rival. The idea was laughed off by industry executives, but Pein’s account of his encounters “manages to capture something essential about Silicon Valley that has eluded other authors,” according to a review in The New York Times.

Star treatment for Salish Sea: Summer in the Pacific Northwest often means heading to the beach to relax and check out life between the tide lines. If you have any young beachcombers in your party, consider “Explore the Salish Sea: A Nature Guide For Kids,” a lavishly illustrated new book by scientists Joseph Gaydos, of Orcas Island, and Audrey DeLella Benedict, of Colorado. The guidebook has been on the Pacific Northwest Independent Bestseller List since shortly after it was published in April. The authors are donating their royalties to a fund-raising campaign intended to ensure all fifth- and sixth-graders in the region can get a copy, regardless of ability to pay.

Martin Wolk is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys reading contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and, among other publications.