First ride


My new skateboard came in the mail the other day. It’s an Enuff, a British brand that didn’t even exist when I quit skating 20 years ago. I did the easy thing and ordered a complete board because I couldn’t remember all the components or even be bothered to decide between all the available parts. On their website they have a message about using wood from renewable forests, their boards are considerably cheaper than well-known brands, and so far I can’t even tell the difference.

As soon as I unwrapped the board I began cruising around the kitchen. I was surprised that I didn’t fall immediately. Within hours I was downstairs carving in the parking lot and doing short manuals (riding on the back wheels, if you don’t know). I left work early that evening and hit a spot I’d been eyeing on the way home. Stop for a moment and think about what you just read: A 40 year old man stopped on his way home from work to skate, alone, in the dark after two decades of not having so much as rolled on a skateboard. And what do you think happened? I slammed. Twice.

Slamming is skateboard jargon for falling hard. I had found a nice smooth area to roll around in. As this is a rather pleasurable activity to do fast, I began to go faster. An unseen pebble sent my flying across the pavement: glasses on face, keys and phone in jacket pocket, button-down shirt and all. It was like a slap in the face from my mother. So what did I do? I swept the pebble away with my foot, muttered something about “goddamn pebbles” and got back on the board again.

It felt triumphant, although my elbow hurt. I imagined I might be able to ollie, and after a few tries I think I got off the ground slightly. A man about my age with a large German Shepherd walked up to me and asked if there was a ramp at the local church. I told him I didn’t know, but thought it unlikely. I added that today was my first day skating. “E sai già fare l’ollie!?” (“And you can already ollie!?”) Well, it’s been a while, I added. He mentioned that he had also recently begun skating again. Cool. “Ci vediamo.” “See you around.”

Skater language is always the same. No matter how much Shaksepeare you’ve internalized through years of reading, as soon as you step on a skateboard it’s back to monosyllables. Cool, yeah, right, wow, u-huh. I’m always pleasantly taken aback when I see a skater who can speak well, like Rodney Mullen in his recent TED talks. I guess I have an old prejudice (based in part in personal experience) of skaters as mainly an anti-intellectual crew. This, at least, was the image projected in the 1980s when skateboarding was synonymous with lawlessness, hardcore and Satanism. These Reagan-era memes must have contaminated my mindstream, despite minimal contact with teenage Satanists.

As I was heading towards the car there was a short drop from the sidewalk into the parking lot. Sweaty and self-confident, I ollied lightly off the curb – a routine move. But the parking lot was gravelly and the board stopped dead and sent me stumbling across the asphalt. My body contorted itself in an effort not to fall and scrape my hands, and as a result I got a bruise between my ribs which began to hurt immediately (and still does two days later.) This time I thought, you are a stupid forty year old oaf. Skateboarding is dangerous. You can kill yourself. Even the instructions that came with my new board spell it out clearly: if you are married and have children, choose a different sport.

Then I remembered what drew me to skateboarding in the first place as a restless tween: skateboarders are known for their independence, non-conformity and defiance of authority. Not unlike atheists. No wonder my feet feel so at home on the griptape.


Close Encounters with the Terza Età

Ever since I turned 25 or so I’ve been making a concerted effort not to get old. I try to avoid expressions such as “Kids these days…” because I still remember what it was like to be a kid in those days. People who use such expressions are undeniably old farts by my lights, and that is my working definition of “getting old.” In the back of my mind is always Socrates skipping rope with his nieces, a pretty good example — however fanciful — of the usefulness of youthfulness.

Last weekend we were at a wedding (not ours) in Perugia. At the reception lunch, they stuck us with the over-60 crowd, which I tried to view as an opportunity to familiarize myself with lesser-known points of view. I no longer have living grandparents, and I don’t hide my fascination when Italian octogenarians tell of the bombing of San Lorenzo or of having killed a Nazi or two in the hills outside Rome back in the day. But this time conversation was less poetic. I was roped in by a woman whose face resembled an old football. She had quick, intelligent eyes. What pearls of wisdom might fall from her lips, I wondered?

I giovani di oggi…” Kids these days, again. This time I wasn’t going to take it lying down. “Kids these days what?” I rebutted. The answer was even more savage than I imagined. “They have no values, no morals. They don’t know right from wrong. It’s the parents, though. They no longer have time for their children.”

I debated with her for 20 minutes or so. I offered myself as an example (I often seem to make a handy one) of a person who grew up with working parents, who spent time in the afternoons alone after school amusing himself in front of the television, and whose friends largely did the same. Granted, many of my “friends” from those days ended up with a criminal record, but this cannot be easily blamed on too much self-reliance.

Americanate,” she tore into me. American children may be expected to be self-sufficient for a few hours a day while their parents wile away their lives making a living, but this certainly won’t fly here in Italy. Apparently, an Italian child should drink its mother’s milk until the ripe age of 40 (I know some that do), or until the mother is old enough to be spoon-fed lukewarm minestrina by her unmarried, live-in offspring.

“But do you really believe that things were better in the past? Were people more moral, were they better people?” I was pleading for an answer that would allow me to rationalize my time spent listening to a woman hell-bent on insulting me.

Assolutamente.” I should’ve seen this one coming. At this point I desisted, put on my most charming smile, and filled my mouth with truffles.

What was to be learned from this encounter with the terza età? Is humanity headed downward in an endless spiral, destined to devolve, each generation more immoral than the last? What do we mean when we talk about morals? Do I have the same morals as an eighty year-old woman from Perugia? Are we talking about real morality, or the Ten Commandments?

I suspect, however, that we do not all have the exact same criteria as to what constitutes a moral life. This I gleaned from her facial contortions when I affirmed that both my parents had been married three times. Another americanata, to be sure, perhaps the worst of the bunch. However much we agree on basic principles of good conduct — don’t steal, don’t murder — there is still much that separates us. Had I told her that I am both Jewish and an atheist, and that I have homosexual friends, I wonder if she would’ve fallen out of her wheelchair. Of course, I understand the power of taboos. I wanted to have a serious discussion, not shock the poor woman to death.

To her credit, she did tell my wife and me that we were a good-looking couple — like the Obamas. She caught me off guard, and I wondered what lurked beyond that remark. I’m still getting used to people waving the American flag instead of burning it.

As she was being wheeled out to her car, my elderly new friend reached up, pinched my cheek and intoned: “You’re a good kid. You’ve got a clean face.” With those words, she disappeared into the sunlight. I felt oddly vindicated.

Published in The American