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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest Passages Book Club: Learning to Fly from ‘Kickflip Boys’ by Neal Thompson

Neal Thompson

Neal Thompson’s new memoir of fatherhood tells the intimate story of raising rebellious teenagers who love to skate. He shares an excerpt in advance of his Wednesday Spokane visit.

I continued to believe skating was good for my kids, that it divulged secrets about an increasingly complex and volatile planet. Even with all the troubling flareups, I remained convinced that skating honed an awareness of real people and real places, of race, ethnicity, and even economics. Mary and I, consciously or not, sent our kids a message that figuring some of those things out mattered as much as calculus and the Constitution. My thinking went: by learning to navigate a city of strangers – by bus, foot, and board – they were learning about life on the streets, developing a sense of direction, learning conflict-resolution skills, sharpening their independence, and their courage.

One night, I ran my fingers across highlighted quotes in my battered copy of Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” offering some needed but unsteady comfort. “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” … “imitation is suicide” … “trust thyself.” As someone who’d strived to embrace Emerson’s call to the genuine, misunderstood, unapologetic life, how could I not let my kids strive for the same? Uncle Ralph might’ve frowned upon certain aspects of the skate life, but still: “My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle.”

And yet, it also seemed too soon for us to have lost control. Every day brought a new conflict, a new ticked-off caller, and more noisy punishments. It was never their fault. The grown-ups never understood.

One night it was Mike from Innerspace, again. The boys had gotten shooed away from the “Adobe steps,” as they now called them, then snuck under the fence of a storage facility, whose security guard gave chase. That was followed by a round of ding-dong ditch through the neighborhood, prompting calls to Innerspace from angry neighbors.

Mike said he and the other managers were starting to get mad at the escalations. The boys had been causing all kinds of ruckus. They’d been banned from Subway and other local stores, and Mike was tempted to start banning them from Innerspace.

“I’d been meaning to tell you, but I didn’t want to cause trouble,” he said. “I keep warning them … It’s just not cool.”

I told Mike I was surprised that they’d turned their defiance on him, on their skatepark, on their own kind. He just sighed. “Man, when a gang of them gets together it just spins out of control. They just go crazy.”

Having fully slammed into the reality of what it meant to really be a skater, crappy phone conversations began invading our nights, a fugly new phase, a family psychosis. It was as if a soccer mom discovered that having a talented soccer kid required an occasional car-jacking. But we’d given our boys so much freedom it now seemed impossible to put the genie back. Our decision to not over-parent was taunting us with the consequences of under-parenting.

Even worse: we unintentionally rewarded bad behavior. For reasons I didn’t fully understand, our family kept returning to skateparks, lured by some voice that spoke to us all.

For Sean’s 13th birthday, we took Amtrak down to Portland. On the ride south, we let our boys Sean and Leo and (their friend) Nate explore the train as Mary and I sipped beers and read in the cafe car. Then a grouchy conductor announced, “Would the parents of three unattended juveniles please…” They’d snuck into a vacant sleeper car suite and helped themselves to showers.

In Portland, after checking into our hotel, we caught the light rail out to Ed Benedict Skatepark, and stayed for hours. Nate had previously injured his ankle skating and was wearing an orthopedic boot. He kept trying to skate with the boot, but finally bailed and pulled out his videocamera. The clips from that afternoon and evening – Nate’s and mine – tell a story of boys losing themselves at a skatepark, each skating a solo performance but connected to a bigger entity, a multi-tentacled organism.

The sun slowly sets. The park gets crowded. Overhead lights flicker on, off, on. Sean keeps trying the same series of tricks, again and again. Skaters call it a “line” – like a dancer working a routine. His intended line: drop down a ramp, ollie onto a mani-pad, then manual (i.e. wheelie) across the platform, then pop-shuvit, then kickflip off the ledge. After multiple, curse-filled attempts, Sean finally nails it, and Leo and Nate swoop in for congratulatory high fives, fist bumps, hang-loose surfer shaka waggles.

But the video segment that I’d later watch obsessively, sometimes tearfully – to remind myself there was a point to all of it – was a 30-second slice of my YouTube clip of Leo trying to ollie down a tricky three-stair. First try: Leo accelerates toward the concrete steps but pulls up shy, daunted. Second try: he clears the stairs – at least ten feet in length, and nearly a four-foot drop – but lands too hard. His board spins out, his butt and helmet smack concrete, he screams and rolls as skaters swerve around him. Third try: similar wipeout, feet and legs folding, more screams. Four and five: getting closer, but he scrapes his hands on #4 and nearly gets smeared by a BMX biker on #5.

And then… Leo pushes off hard with his right foot, accelerates, crouches low, pops a huge ollie, soars through the air, arms out like wings, sticks the landing and pumps his fists. Leo kick-turns back and Sean is waiting with giddy high fives, as if Leo had just homered in two runs. Nate, laughing, hands him a bottle of water and drapes him in a bro hug. On the light rail ride back downtown, I videotape the three of them, grinning and smirking, like they’ve just gotten away with something, like they’re sharing a secret.

The soundtrack I’d added to my video, from Spoon, meshed nicely: “It was the longest day that I’d ever known … Oh, life could be so fair. Let it go on and on.”

My sons were learning to fly. I understood that. And I wanted them to fly, though not too much. I also wanted them to comply. Why couldn’t they do both?

This story is an excerpt from “Kickflip Boy: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion and the Chaos of Fatherhood” by Neal Thompson, who comes to Spokane Wednesday to speak with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.