Category Archives: Childhood

Keep your eye on the (base) ball…

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The first job I ever had – I mean genuine, real job, where they wrote you a paycheck and didn’t just give you the money they had in their pocket – was lining baseball fields.

And it taught me a lesson I remember until this day.

I got the job in the summer of ’78, when I was 14. Up until then I’d cut apricots, mowed lawns, washed cars and shined shoes (unshined them is more like it) but the summer of my 14th year I decided I was old enough to go find me a big boy job.

I don’t recall how I thought of it, but at some point in my search I went to the Parks & Rec Department in my little town to see if they had any jobs I could do. It turns out they did. The guy who’d painted the lines on the baseball fields in town had quit, and they needed someone to take his place. I filled out an application, talked to some lady with a title like “assistant director” and a few days later received a call saying I got the job. A little confession here: no small part of this lucky turn had to do with, to the question “have you ever lined baseball fields before?” I answered “Yes, of course I have.”

A more truthful answer would have been “No, no I have never done anything even remotely close to drawing thick, straight, chalk lines all over a baseball diamond”, but somehow I wasn’t quite able to write that one down on the application.

The fields were situated all over town, so on my first day, because I was a kid still 2 years away from getting his license, Dad drove me (every time after that he handed me the keys to the old truck and said “Keep to the backroads”). And that first day went pretty badly. The next few days after that weren’t much better. Turns out I was terrible at drawing lines on baseball fields.

The wheels on the ‘line chalking’ contraption that you used to do the job were out-of-round, and hard to push in a straight line. And the lines that were already there (that I thought I’d just follow to make new lines) were pretty much obliterated by previous games. It seemed like the harder I tried, the worse I did. I even started to go really slow, taking twice as long, in my effort to carefully create the thick, straight lines I’d need to keep my job.

I was getting angry with myself, and embarrassed too. I didn’t know what to do. And with no youtube how-to videos for help, and no one I knew who’d done this sort of thing to ask, I felt alone. Really alone.

So one evening, about a week in, I sat down on the side of a field and decided to spend some time thinking rather than working. I started it with toughts of quitting. I hate to admit it, but when I begin doubting myself an early instinct I have is, just cut and run. But then I felt even more embarrassed, like really, I can’t figure this out?

So I figured it out.

Here’s what I came up with: my solution to the wavering, crooked lines I was drawing had been to go slower – to be careful. And then I’d go slower yet, and be even more careful. I was watching the line as I drew it, trying to match what was there before. But the slower I went, and the more closely I watch the line in front of me, the worse I did and the more frustrated I got. So I thought “The hell with it – I’m not going look at what I’m doing, I’m going to look at where I’m going”. Instead of trying to match a blurry, messy, disappearing line I started looking at the bases I was drawing my lines to. And when I did a weird thing happened – I started to speed up. I would just look straight toward first base, and quickly walk to it. Then I’d do the same with second, and so on. All of a sudden the job was taking half the time it used to.

And the lines were almost dead straight.

After that I started hearing from the assistant director lady that the players loved how the fields looked. The lines had never been so straight. And I felt proud.

Lesson? Don’t worry too much about where you’re at, just keep your eye on where you’re going to…

 

 

 

 

 

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Cycles of Attraction

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I taught myself how to ride a bike – at least that’s how I remember it.

I think it was the summer of 1968, when I was about four years old. Dad was in the Army and stationed at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia. We lived on post in a home that faced a large rolling green. Between that green and our house was a sidewalk that led out to the street in one direction and further into post housing in the other.

The first mode of transportation I recall using to traverse the long sidewalk was a little red fire engine. You remember the one – it had pedals on the inside of it and a bell on the hood that you’d ring with a pull of the string.

Those were safe and comfortable times inside my steel fire engine with wheels at all four corners and no real way to tip over. I’d pedal up and down the sidewalk as Mom watched from the front porch. I’d ring the bell and she’d smile – and all was right with the world.

Sometimes I’d still be out there as Dad walked home after he got off duty. I’d see him coming and pedal just a little faster, and ring the bell a little louder. And he’d smile – and all was right with the world.

But one day, as dad walked home, I could see he had something in tow – it was big and blue and had handlebars and naked pedals hanging off either side.

It was a bike.

I knew what bikes were – I had friends who rode them. They were typically complicated contraptions that wobbled at first until the rider got going pretty good – at which point they seemed to become a magical sort of thing that would then take its owner anywhere he wanted to go.

The bike Dad was bringing with him seemed better than most. It was a full sized bike – like a grown-up would ride – so at first I guess I thought it wasn’t for me. But when he got to where I was in my little red fire engine he said that the bike would be mine. He’d got it on post, from the wife of a friend who was shipping out and didn’t have room to bring it along.

I was excited by the idea of riding this bike. It was beautiful and it glistened in the sun. It had long, curvy handlebars with white grips, and its frame stretched up from the pedals to meet the handlebars in a long, rounded arch that resembled a slender gas tank. It was one of those bikes from the fifties that were built to resemble motorcycles – a gracefully curved and slender motorcycle.

The only reason I had any chance of riding this bike is because it was a ladies model – and as such you could step into it rather than having to throw your leg over it. But there remained the issue of how to get the whole affair started.

Dad said something about putting me on the seat and giving me a push – but in standing next to the bike I could tell that if I sat down on the seat I wouldn’t be able to touch the pedals.

And I knew from my little red engine that pedals equaled progress.

Dad was just off work and was eager to go inside, so our conversation was short. He walked the rest of the way to the house with the bike in hand and leaned it up against the porch – where I stared at it for what seemed like an eternity. I wanted to ride the bike – because that’s what boys do – but was afraid it wouldn’t work out.

Finally my desire overcame me. I climbed out of my fire engine and walked over and laid my hands on my new partner and decided I’d just figure out how to make this relationship work. I guided the sleek bike out to the sidewalk and started running, still holding onto the handlebars. When I reached a certain speed I jumped up onto the closest pedal. This action pulled the bike sharply to the left. To counter this imbalance I pushed the handlebars to the right and fought the bike back to the middle of the sidewalk.

In my memory we battled like that for the rest of the evening. Up and down the sidewalk I’d run her and then jump on – and she’d test my balance and try to throw me back off. It wasn’t until I realized that her imbalance was in direct reaction to mine that I started to make any progress at all.

And then on one pass it all sort of fell together.

I ran my run, jumped my jump and then… then I stepped fully into my new bike. I stepped in and stopped worrying – worrying about how to reach the seat, or fearing that I’d fall and fail. Before I knew it we were both gliding smoothly up and down the sidewalk –neither of us were wholly in control – yet somehow we both were.

That bike taught me a lesson I’d get to relearn some 40 odd years later.

I’ve written in this space over the last year and a half about things like baseball and motorcycles – soccer, cars and basketball. And I’ve used those illustrations to communicate my feelings for, and my journey with, the woman in my life. Maybe speaking directly isn’t my strong suit, but let me be very direct in what I’m about to say:

I love you Loretta Sayers, and the ride is just getting started.

 

Brian

Brothers

In honor of National Brothers Day I thought I’d write about my little brother, Brian.

Brian is two years younger than me, and two inches taller (which doesn’t seem right, but whatever) and is really one of the best guys I know. He’s always ready to help, and is cool under pressure which – if you had a childhood like ours – was a vital skill.

And by “childhood like ours” I don’t mean to imply our childhood wasn’t good, or healthy or loving. It was those things. But it was also dangerous, and daring, and exciting – mostly because we made it that way.

Here’s the sort of stuff I’m talking about:

Our parents were born in Ireland – and because they were they liked to go to Irish events to comingle with other Irish immigrants and do Irishy stuff.

One Saturday when I was about 12 and Brian 10, they piled us in the station wagon and took us to an Irish dancing competition at a local middle school (think Riverdance for 7th graders) so that we could watch the children of other Irish immigrants bounce up and down to really fast Celtic music.

Whatever.

Brian and I pretty much hated that stuff because, well, I guess because we wanted to be American, and outside, and running wild, and – you get the point.

So the minute our folks looked in one direction, we beat feet in the other. And to make sure we executed a clean – and dance spectating free – getaway we ran flat out. Right around a corner and into the parking lot. Where a car was coming. Pretty fast too. That Brian ran right in front of. And which hit him.

Really hard.

I was right behind my little brother and saw the whole thing. I saw him run in front of the big sedan – I saw him fly up into the air after it slammed into him, and I saw him land on its hood and then roll off one side as the terrified driver stomped on the brakes.

And then I watched Brian fall to the ground in a crumpled heap.

At which point he sprang to his feet, shot me an “oh crap” look, and took off running as fast as he could. I took off running too. After all he’d just been hit by a car – which we were pretty sure we’d get in trouble for – so there was no time to waste.

It was that sort of danger and excitement we were always on the lookout for.

On that day we’d got lucky and it fell in our laps – but most times we had to actually create the peril. Like the time we ran down a herd of deer in the field behind our house with homemade spears (kitchen knives lashed to broom sticks in case you were wondering).

Just a heads-up here to Greenpeace: Despite our best throws, no animals were harmed in the making of that adventure.

From there it pretty much ramped up to include stuff like BB gun battles, forest fires, and cliff climbing. But in consideration of those of you with weaker constitutions (and Mom, who sometimes reads my column) I’ll leave the more daring stuff to the imagination.

I will tell you this: You know how your memory of you from childhood seems sort of average, but there’s always one whose exploits seem larger than life? Well that was Brian.

And remember – he was my little brother.

But at a point he just seemed to get, well, bigger. I don’t mean in stature – he actually didn’t get tall until later – I mean the stuff he was doing started seeming bigger than the stuff the rest of us kids were doing.

Even though still kind of short, in about the 9th grade he started dunking basketballs during our neighborhood games.  On regulation height baskets.

Up until that time he’d been my cohort, my partner in crime (I wish that was just a figure of speech, but one escapade actually landed us in a holding cell). He was my brother. He was the copilot on our go cart runs down ridiculously steep hills, the second to jump the bicycle ramp behind me, and Tonto to my Lone Ranger.

But then he got strong. And fast. And big.

And pretty soon we weren’t so much partners as independent contractors. We started going our own ways when stuff like girls and cars began to happen. Although there was that time I threw him the keys to my hot rod and told him to drive it home because I was gonna ride uptown with some friends.

He might have been 14 at the time.

But our paths started to diverge. As the little brother I used to sometimes look down on got harder to live up to I think I created distance between us.

It got to the point where I wouldn’t get on a basketball court with him anymore. And on a skateboard – which was not only transportation in our neighborhood, but a lifestyle – he started doing things I’d only seen in the skateboard magazines.

It wasn’t too much later that, following a chat with Uncle Sam, I headed off for a series of Air Force bases. After that I heard Brian got a basketball scholarship. And then broke some kind of state high jumping record. I think I heard he was lead singer for a punk band too. And one day I opened a magazine and saw him in an ad.

After I got out of the service I think Brian was living the life of a SoCal surfer. I went to college, got married, had some kids and got a mortgage. But Brian was always somewhere like Hawaii, or Bali – in my mind he was always still doing those things that seemed just a little larger than what others did. And what I did.

And for a long time there was more than just a physical distance between us.

Every couple of years we’d hook up at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and catch each other up on the latest. I’d tell him what my kids were doing and he’d tell me about some amazing adventure he’d had. And then we’d head off in our own direction again – until next Christmas. Or the one after that.

My little brother is now 51 – which makes me 53.

And while I can’t quite put my finger on when, something happened, quite a few years back now, that let me get back closer to the only brother I have. I’m not sure how it happened, or why, and don’t really care at this point, but somewhere along the line I got over myself.

I got over my perceived shortcomings, and whatever else it was that was causing me to do that crazy habit I have sometimes of being aloof – and I found my little brother again.

You know today is not really National Brothers Day – but it would be stupid to wait for a contrivance like that to say the things a brother needs to hear.

And what I want to tell Brian is I’m always right behind him – no matter what’s around the corner.

I Don’t Ollie (or, why ‘Vert’ Skating and Street Skating are pretty much the same thing)

 

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In 1978 a couple things happened in skateboarding I’d like to tell you about. The first is the invention of the Ollie by Alan Gelfand.  The Ollie is a no-handed trick in which a board is popped into the air. Initially a vert move, first performed in a Florida skatepark, it eventually became a flat ground trick that fundamentally changed skateboarding.

The second thing happened in a skatepark on the other coast.

I don’t know about you, but skateparks really do it for me – and every time I went to one I’d get really amped. I’d think of the runs I was going to do, and the pools I was going to skate, and the moves I was going to try. One summer morning in ’78 as I was headed up to Winchester Skatepark in San Jose, California, I was thinking hard about some moves I wanted to go for.

I started on the ‘Washboard’, a set of moguls you pumped through that propelled you up this huge beautiful wall – it was like skating toward the sky. After that I hit the half pipe, where I pushed myself to go higher and higher until I reached that spooky weightless feeling at the top.

Then I headed to the pool.

Back in the day it was all about pools and aerials. Skateboarder Magazine always had some pro on the cover, like Peralta or Alva, flying through the air above the coping of a pool. I had yet to do an aerial – but I dreamed of them over and over.

When I rolled into the pool at Winchester I decided today was the day I caught air. I started pushing myself harder and harder, pumping the board for the momentum I’d need to leave the pool and shoot up past the lip. And on one particular run, when I knew I had the speed I’d need, I arced up and over the coping – just like I dreamed I would – and floated back toward the pool to touch back down. But a truck on my big Powell deck caught the lip as I re-entered. As I left my board up on the coping and fell backward toward the bottom of the pool, I stretched out my right arm to break my fall.

My fall is not what broke.

When I looked down my right forearm was bent into a shape that’s hard to describe. After surgery to straighten it back out, and a week in the hospital, and months in a cast (all spent not skating) I started to drift from skateboarding. Pretty soon I was working as much as I could to save and buy a car – and then girls came into the picture in a pretty big way and skateboarding started seem like a kid thing to me. And at that age I was trying to be anything but a kid.

Eventually I finished high school and joined the Service. Then I went to college, started a family, found a career and got a mortgage – pretty much in that order. Life was busy, a little too busy to skate. But whenever I saw a kid on a board I’d stop and watch for a minute, you know?

In the year 2000, when my son Charlie turned eight, I bought him a skateboard for his birthday – and something rad happened: once I had that board together and stepped on it to ‘show him how’, I didn’t want to get off the thing. It was like part of me – a part I’d put away – came back. That part of me that lived to skate rolled over from his long ass nap and said “Hey, where’s my board?” So I bought a new-old-stock Bahne Rocker, onto which I mounted Indy’s and OJ’s (just like I coveted back in the day) and Charlie and I started skating parks together.

But things were different now – skateparks were different.

The first thing I noticed at the parks? There was no one my age, at least not that I ever saw. And there were few, if any, pools. The parks instead featured odd structures like rails, and steps, and, well, more rails. It’s like they were trying to clone what already existed on streets rather than create that unique undulating terrain found in 70’s skateparks.

The boards were different now too – they were shaped like popsicle sticks – with a ‘kick’ on both ends. (Hello?! They’re called kick tails for a reason people!) And now it was all about tricks and flips. And what was up with those weird little wheels? They were the size of golf balls and almost as hard. Gone were the days of big wide decks and sweet soft urethane. Gone also were the days of pools and half pipes.

Vert was dead.

But now it’s 2016 and things are better, at least to this old skate rat. Parks have pools again, and popsicle decks are now occasionally seen with big soft wheels on them. I’m even noticing board shapes evolving (devolving?) back to what they looked like in decades past. But here’s something else I’ve noticed: there’s a sort of rift between old school and new school; between ‘vert skaters’ and ‘street skaters’.

And I don’t like it.

You know, if you want you can get all hung up that “skateboard” now means a popsicle deck. And that “longboard” refers to just about everything else (even if it’s 27”) OR… you can remember that it’s all skateboarding – and age, or skating style, aren’t really divisive elements.

Why is it people think the way they do things is the way things should be done? Is that human nature? Maybe – or maybe it’s just one of those ideas that grow from distrust or fear. Well the best way to erase a fear is to face a fear – and I faced one recently. Okay, maybe not a genuine fear, maybe more of a shortcoming. A hole in my skating repertoire, so to speak.

You see, I don’t Ollie.

It’s not that I don’t want to – it’s just that I don’t know how. Really. No one ever showed me and I never tried to learn. I left skateboarding the year Ollies came on the scene, and was away for over two decades – that trick was a rite of passage for a different generation of skaters. I think my own prejudice made me see it as somehow ‘not really skating’, and, I hate to admit, the symbol of a change skateboarding had undergone that I didn’t like.

But one of the cool things about being my age, is that life’s become easier to figure out. I mean hell, at this age there’s very little I haven’t already done, so how hard could fixing an old prejudice be?

Maybe not as easy as I thought.

I figured I’d need instruction, so I went to my local skateshop, Lighthouse Skates, down by the beach here in Santa Barbara and enlisted the help of Naren Porter-Kasbati, a street skater who runs the place. Naren agreed to help, so we met up at the skatepark a few days later. His offer was, if I could learn to Ollie, he’d also teach me to kick-flip.

I had high hopes – I really did. I thought, “How hard could it be, right?” Naren said just pop the tail with one foot then push the board with the other. Really? A two-step process and that’s it? Dude, I thought, I’ll be rockin’ these things in no time. I mean sure I’m getting older, but I’m still athletic. Just last week I rolled my longboard 27 miles in under 3 hours. So I’m going to pop a board into the air and land on it?

Big whoop.

An hour – and gawd knows how many pop/push combos later – and I still hadn’t done what you would call an honest-to-goodness Ollie. I mean, like I could get the front wheels off the ground, and I’m pretty sure a back wheel even came up a time or two, but a real Ollie, where the whole board is up a foot or two (or even a few inches!) off the ground? That wasn’t happening.

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Now Naren is a nice kid, and the whole time he kept a great attitude, saying things like “Good job!” and “You almost had it that time!” But a John Gavin Ollie was turning out to be like the Loch Ness Monster, or Donald Trump’s sense of decorum – nowhere to be found.

So what did we do? Moved on to the kick-flip! Which, by the way, you have to be able to do an Ollie to even attempt. But you know what? It wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was fun just trying. Soon Naren and I were trying to do them side by side – and by ‘trying’ I mean he was actually doing them and I was actually not (though one time my board did rotate half way ‘round and land on its top – and I’m calling that a win).

Here’s the truth: It was a blast giving those tricks a go – and I laughed my ass off more than once, even while landing on my ass. Am I any good at them? Well, no. But you know what? I was skating. At a skatepark. With other skaters. And I freaking love that!

We’re all skaters, right? Yes, yes we are. We do this thing because we love rolling a board along, and the feeling it gives us. For me, that means pushing a longboard a long way and careening down the occasional hill. For others, it means trying and mastering crazy new tricks. But it’s all skateboarding.

All of it.

So get out there and get your skate on. If you’re older and a kid Ollies past you, show some camaraderie and say “Hey”. And if you’re younger and some geezer like me is in your way? Remember that, if you’re lucky, you’ll be where I am someday too: just enjoying the stoke (even if it sometimes comes with the aroma of Icy-Hot these days).

Next, I think I’ll give downhill/sliding a try – I mean, how hard could it be, right?

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#skateboarding #Ollie #vert #streetskating #skateboard #skatepark #downhill #skater #skatelife

Stolen Memories

stealing candy

One of my early boyhood heroes was Kevin Gaines.

If you haven’t heard of him that’s probably because he was a fourth grader who lived up the street from me.

That was 1973, when I lived in South San Jose and was in the third grade at Blossom Valley Elementary. Kevin went to Blossom Valley too, but I didn’t see him there much because the fourth graders were way on the other side of the school – and since the building was one of those giant round flying saucer shaped things you used to see back then, with all the classes in the same massive structure, the other side of the building was actually pretty far away.

Luckily he only lived four houses down from me. Continue reading

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I don’t love basketball

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I love my Mom.

Anyone who knows me is aware that’s not earth-shattering news. She’s a great woman – with a big heart, who worries about all who are important to her. She’s loved or liked by probably everyone who knows her. She’s kind to strangers and always looks out for the underdog.  She’s a wonderful woman whom I find very easy to love.

But that was not always the case… Continue reading

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Semi-Superhero

 

I use to be a superhero.

Well, a semi-superhero, anyways. When my two sons were little – probably about eight and ten – I told them that the man they knew to be their dad was actually the mild mannered alter ego of a superhero named Bugflector. Continue reading

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Don’t Shoot

If you’ve read my column before you probably know that I spent chunks of my childhood in Ireland, where my family is from.

My parents would make the arrangements for my summer trips: where I’d stay, with whom, and for how long — and then take me up to SFO to board an Aer Lingus jet for the long flight to their homeland. Even though pretty young at the time (10 or 14 — or in there somewhere) I’d make the trip alone because, well, that’s what they could afford. But I wouldn’t really be alone. Back in those days you could pull aside a flight attendant and ask her to look after your kid, and she would. Or, she would as well as she was able between making coffee and bringing all the food they used to serve on airplanes to the throngs of hungry/thirsty/needy passengers.

On some flights I’d have an attendant checking on me every hour or two. And on some flights I’d actually have someone my parents knew, or maybe a friend of a friend, who happened to be going back for their summer in Ireland, who could watch over me. It was usually easier when I was actually with someone, especially when we got to New York, where sometimes I’d have to change planes.

But however the trip went, I always loved the part where we broke through the clouds over Ireland and there were green fields as far as the eye could see. It was both weird and wonderful, being from California, to see long green grass growing in the summer time, and it served as a reminder that I was travelling to a very different place that was sort of like a fairy-tale. People there spoke much differently than I did, and the steering wheels were all on the wrong side of the car, and there were donkeys on the roads and roofs made of thatch. It was sort of like being in Oz, only it was all the Emerald City. Continue reading

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I Try not to Eat Glass

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Charlie ate broken glass.

He’s my son, and was about 14 months old at the time and, if I recall correctly, that was his first trip to a hospital emergency room. By the age of six he would visit emergency rooms four more times, for things such as breaking his arm, knocking himself out, and cracking his skull.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – allow me to back up a bit and explain how it was that Charlie came to eat glass. Continue reading

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Beach Town Blue


I rode down to that beach town to meet a woman.

She was from L.A. somewhere (south of the Grapevine it’s all L.A. to me) and was looking forward to seeing me – as I her – but it didn’t go all that well. I mean how could it? We really knew nothing about each other aside from the pics we exchanged and the divorces we talked of.

When the weekend was over I rode off knowing I’d never see her again. I’m sure she drove off thinking the same. But the funniest thing happened as I headed back north across the streets of that sleepy little beach town. Continue reading

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