As kids, we risked embarrassment and failure in activities we loved to do. As adults we avoid risk and embarrassment at all costs. But when we put our creative selves out there and risk being the fool, we can once again feel like a kid, beaming with Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship.
“Oh yeah… Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone."
- John Mellencamp from Jack and Dianne
Just after dusk at a crowded Skateboard Park in Jacksonville, Florida, I stood atop a ten-foot high half-pipe skate ramp and peered over what felt like a wooden cliff. With my right foot anchored on the tail, the remaining 90% of my board hovered over the ramp’s edge. Amidst the blaring hard rock and the swirling smell of plywood and adolescent sweat, I took a deep breath.
With my foot pushing hard on the board’s tail to steady myself, I thought of my next move. I’d press on the front of my board with my left foot, slam the board’s front wheels into the initial two feet of vert, and then rocket down the ramp and back up the other side. Okay, that was my plan at least.
While considering my options, I slid my board up to the edge of the ramp a few times, only to back off again and again. I asked myself, would I attempt the ballsiest thing I’d ever considered doing? Would I risk injury? Would I risk humiliation? For a nine-year-old kid, this was some serious shit to consider.
There were three groups of potential witnesses to my heroism, or maybe stupidity:
1) A few of my friends lingered around the bottom of the ramp along with a gaggle of other pre-teens with novice abilities. None of them would even consider dropping in.
2) The teenagers who wouldn’t speak to me or any other novice skater and ruled the skatepark like a pack of wolves. With their long hair, headbands, duct taped Vans, and almost always without a t-shirt… they looked like they’d just stepped off the set of The Lost Boys.
3) Mixed in with the pack of wolves were a few ultra-shredders sponsored by Powell-Peralta, the Nike of 80s skateboarding companies. After dropping in, these dudes would pop up the other side, catch four feet of air above the ramp, turn themselves midair, and reenter the ramp to continue their run like it was no big deal. (To get an extreme taste of what I saw, here are two of the best to ever do it.)
Missing altogether at Kona Skateboard Park in 1985 was adult supervision. The place was just feral, teeming with aggressive risk-taking kids pushing the limits of their young bodies – always one upping each other with their creative stunts and fearless “skate or die” attitude.
Standing back from the edge in my green plastic helmet with skull stickers plastered around it, plus knee pads and elbow pads wrapped tight, my 80-pound frame shook as I watched the older daredevils catch air. I can still hear that “wizzzzz” from their four wheels spinning mid-air just a few feet from my face. At nine (and probably at any age), the whole thing was just nuts. I was terrified. “What the hell am I doing up here,” I thought. Deep down I felt like I didn’t deserve to be on that ramp with those barbarian boys. Deep down I feared embarrassing myself in front of them.
As I watched the Alpha of that wolfpack, an older skater in his early 20s named Marty finish his run, the clock began to tick on me. I’d been up there for a while, inching my board forward and back each time. And the longer I stayed, trembling with indecision, the more the consequences of injury and humiliation entered my head. Finally, I decided, “it’s time.”
As Marty exited his run by jumping off his board and catching it mid-air at the ramp’s top, I slid my fluorescent pink board to the edge one more time. Then I lifted my left foot and shifted my weight forward. There was no turning back. Holding my breath, my left foot came down onto the board. But when my board slammed down onto the vert, I wasn’t on it. I was mid-air, falling straight down a full ten feet until… splat! I landed right on my face. The lights blurred, the sounds muffled, and I laid on the bottom of the ramp like a casualty.
At once, Marty slid down the ramp on his knee pads, picked me up, and ran me into the little clubhouse for further evaluation. I was a wreck.
Icing one of the great busts of my life both physically and emotionally, a friend’s mom drove me home. The doctor who lived across the street examined me. No ER or doctor visit necessary, he proclaimed. And this was nice considering my parents had one hundred friends over (not an exaggeration) for a raging party, jukebox and all. For the next few hours, my mom and her friends took turns holding ice on my face with one hand and drinking wine from the other. It was the 80s in the south, and I felt well cared for. That said, my left eye didn’t open for a month. Swollen shut by a black and blue hematoma the size of a baseball, I was embarrassed to go to school on Monday.
One More Time
Three months later in the drizzling rain with my dear friend “Dooner” by my side, I stood again at the top of the ramp. It was midday, just Dooner and me, and the ramp was a bit slick from the spitting rain. With my board hanging over the edge, however, I was no longer terrified. I’d faced this dragon before and here I was, ready to slay that fucker and feel the glory of going for it.
By this time, I was a better skater than a few months before. I also had a new Powell-Peralta skateboard. As the drizzle brushed my face, I felt a calmness come over me. I’d done the work. I was ready. I knew I could do it. So… I did it. I planted my left foot, slammed the board into two feet of vert, and zoomed down and back up the other side. Holy shit! I did it.
For the first time in my life I felt special. None of my friends had done it or even tried it. But I did it. I came, I saw, I conquered. And no one but Dooner even saw it! But I didn’t care. It felt damn good. And I can't help but think that Marty would have been proud.
Be the Fool, Even as an Adult
In this beautiful nine minute speech, actor Ethan Hawke explains that to be a creative person “you have to be willing to play the fool.” In short, have the courage to express yourself in ways others will judge.
As adults we tend to lose our inner Evel Knievel, and for good reason. We’re no longer malleable little bastards like kids. Just yesterday, a friend (and former U.S. Marine I might add) told me he threw his back out at work when he sneezed. When he sneezed!
If you’re over 40, I think it makes sense to exercise some physical caution. But what about emotional caution?
At some point, we adults just stop “dropping in” on life. We stop pursuing actions that might cause our stomachs to butterfly or cause us embarrassment. We stop feeling the exhilarations of a dance performance, a school play, or any other creative endeavor that makes us shake with nerves.
When you feel the butterflies that precede any creative act you’re projecting to the world, those butterflies are the barbarian in you saying, “Go for it; don’t be afraid to be the fool.” So I say, be that barbarian kid again and feel the butterflies! Write to the editor, act in the play, dance the recital, share the poem, sing the song, surf the wave, or enter the baking contest. In short, drop in on life like a feral kid with vigor, wonder, and fellowship because we never know when our last run will come.
I’ll let the barbarian genius David Bowie close things out: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”