Category Archives: Writing

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.

 

Bee People (who we’re supposed to bee)

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Does anybody here remember the band Blind Melon?

Back in the early 90’s they had a song called No Rain. It was one of two singles from their self-titled debut album – and it wasn’t doing very well until the accompanying video went into heavy rotation on MTV. After that you would hear No Rain everywhere, which kept bringing the video back to mind for me.

But that was fine – because that video is one of the best metaphors for how we fit or don’t fit into our world, I think I’ve ever seen.

It opens with a small girl upon an auditorium stage waiting for the music to start. She’s a little chubby and has thick glasses and is dressed in a yellow and black tutu – which makes her look sort of like a big bee. As the music begins she starts shuffling her tap shoes to it, and as the Blind Melon song picks up tempo so does our bee girl, until she’s spinning and kicking and flailing her arms in a dance that conveys both individuality and sheer joy.

But when the music stops and her dance ends there is no applause – only denigrating laughter.

With her spirit crushed she leaves the stage in tears and begins a small and unpretentious odyssey in search of those who can appreciate what she does – and see her for who she really is. Her first stop is a man on the street. She dances her dance and ends it in a sort of “ta da” flourish with her arms outspread, but all she gets from him is a quizzical look.

He doesn’t understand.

Next she dances for a group of guys on the corner – but the outcome is the same. They’re a little amused, but that’s about it. There’s none of the recognition, the understanding, the validation that she – that we – need in order to confirm for ourselves that what we’re doing is important, that it matters, and that it’s right – or at least right for us.

Do you remember when you reached that crossroads in your life? When you were faced with the choice between doing what you felt you should do and what others felt you should do? How old were you? Were you 8 like the bee girl? Were you 48 like me? Or were you 98 like that woman who got her college degree last year from Utah State University?

College is a good example of a crossroads isn’t it? It’s something we’re supposed to do, but something we’re supposed to do in a certain way, and within a certain time frame. And while 98 is a pretty extreme example of waiting what most would consider too long to get your degree – society has far smaller numbers in mind. We get told in school that everyone has to go to college – and it’s pretty strongly implied that if you wait much later than age 18, you’re doing it wrong.

I hit a crossroads when I finished high school. I don’t know what it was like for you, but for me I’d just done 13 straight years of sitting inside classrooms, and since that was 13/18ths of my entire life I was kind of looking for a little respite. So I joined the service. And man did I have a great time – I learned a ton about myself and others, made lifelong friends, and banked some much needed cash to eventually get me through school.

But when I did get to college at age 23 I noticed an odd phenomenon: Some people treated me like I was too old to be there.

And if there is discrimination against those who started too late – what do you suppose it’s like for those who never went at all? How does that dinner conversation feel when talk turns to what you studied in college, or which school you attended? Why does that happen in our society? What is the cause? Who says everybody has to go to college?

Please understand that I believe a lot of people should go to college. But I also believe that a lot of people shouldn’t. Or, in many cases, shouldn’t go right out of high school. Here’s my reasoning: Precious few of us really know who we are at 18, and even for those who do – we still don’t know how to channel, or direct, who we are. And yet we get pushed along on a conveyor belt toward the college cauldron, where we either find out who we are and pursue that, or fail to follow who we are and pursue what ends up the wrong thing, or kick and flail and dance only to be laughed off stage and then wander off in search of who we really are.

I think the “You have to go to college” line is the default in our society to the question “What should I do?” It’s what we tell ourselves and every kid who asks. It doesn’t require much thought, or introspection. It doesn’t require that we come to understand who the asker is, and what her passions are, or what’s going to truly be the best and healthiest channel for her journey through the crossroads that life continually present us.

It’s just became a thing we say.

It’s a thing we say because it’s an easy answer, and a safe one. No real thought is required, and there’s no real downside to saying it. Well, not for us anyway – but what about that kid you’ve just said it to, who should be following their gift to become an artisan, or a musician – or a dancer.

In the end of the No Rain video the bee girl – who at this point is quite forlorn – comes upon a gate that leads into a grassy field bathed in bright blurry sunshine. And in the field we see other dancers – spinning and kicking and flailing their arms – and every last one of them is dressed in yellow and black. The little girl’s face lights up immediately as she rushes toward them. She joins the dance and smiles as she finally finds herself surrounded by people who understand and appreciate her. She’s found her bee people.

I say we do this: Let’s take the time to figure out each and every one of these kids who are looking to us for help and answers. And let’s guide them in a way that fits who they are.

Let’s help them find their bee people.

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

 

 

Lifetime Habit

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Do you know what you’re made of?

I don’t mean physically – like your composition. No, what I’m talking about are those experiences from your life that made you the way you are today. You know, like when someone says a certain thing to you – be that “get out of my hair”, or “what lovely eyes you have”.

What shapes the ways we respond to what others say to us?

Is it our original programming; that version of software that came pre-installed in our between-the-ears hard drive? Or is it the way we were conditioned by parents, teachers and life’s hard knocks?

A combination of both?

Here’s why I ask: There are things I’d like to change about myself. I can hear what you’re thinking now: “But John, you’re super great, at writing and probably many other things, so why change?” And trust me, I get your point – but there are still things about me I might want to modify a smidge.

Like how I argue.

Loretta: This ought to be interesting… Continue reading

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He ain’t heavy…

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In honor of National Brother Day I thought I’d write about my 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. Continue reading

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On the same page…

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So the funniest thing happened to Loretta and me the other day – and by funny I mean mysterious.

Loretta and I have been married for the better part of a year – and we were together for over a year before that. So you’d think we’d have the bigger topics sorted out by now. Sure, we know which side of the bed each sleeps on. And who gets the bathroom first (and I’m OK with second, really I am). But there are still some topics we have trouble with.

Like how much time do I get to myself?

Hi, this is Loretta, and I’ve been proofreading John’s columns for over two years now. Sometimes he listens to my advice, sometimes not, so I think it’s time I added my two cents to what he says about us.  First of all, part of the predicament is, after years of being single and on our own, we tend to think in terms of “I” instead of “we”. It’s “how much time do WE get to ourselves?” Not ‘how much time to I get to myself?” Continue reading

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