People in Nashville don’t expect to see a grown man on a skateboard, at least not in the suburbs. That’s what I deduced on a recent outing with my boys. They had their bikes and I had my longboard (which is exactly what it sounds like, for those unfamiliar with skater lingo), and we pushed and pedaled around the parking lots and walking track of my oldest son’s school for a couple of hours. The clear, cool day brought out other people, too, so we had a little company: walking middle-aged couples (probably close to my age, actually); a teenage kid blasting hip-hop in his headphones and doing basketball moves with no ball; a man giving his daughter a driving lesson. The basketball kid paid us no mind, and the father giving driving lessons checked to make sure we’d be in a different part of the parking lot, but the walking couples stared. Rudely stared. Some said hi, but others had this bemused look, like they thought I was kidding about being a longboard dad, or that any moment I might break into a Rodney Mullen street routine. It got a little awkward.
I’m jealous of two kinds of people: really tall people, and people who don’t care what anyone thinks of them. As hard as I try, when someone outright stares at me, I can’t ignore it. I may not look at them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel their eyes burning whichever side of me happens to be facing them.
The longboard stayed, of course, because thankfully I’m too stubborn to let a little awkwardness deter me. But it would be nice if the stigma of skateboarding being only a thing for kids would go away. I can’t see why it’s any less a legitimate activity than riding a bike.
Anyway, that experience has me thinking about the awkwardness and vulnerability artists undergo for the sake of their work. It’s risky to take something you created and place it in front of others. It’s risky because an artist’s work is built from the raw materials of his own life; to put it simply, it’s intimate. The best artists hold nothing back. It terrifies me to think of holding nothing back. Yet to be honest and to be good, artistically speaking, that stuff has to come out. Like a longboard.
Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.
It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.
Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?
In every memory of the front view of my childhood home, my dad’s 1978 Ford F-150 two-tone brown and tan pickup is parked in the street. It’s not because my dad stayed home all the time–he maintained a long workweek for most of my youth–but because I can’t separate the truck from my memories of growing up. My brother and I both learned to drive in that truck, and we both left our marks on it, some of which remained indefinitely. Yet even as a self-conscious late-stage teenager, long after appearance had begun to matter, I was never too proud to be seen in the beat-up truck. In fact, I excelled at finding excuses to drive it, one of which involved 90s alternative band, The Breeders.
Imagine a lonely northwest Tennessee town in winter. It’s night and the brown grass and busted-up concrete of vacant lots lends a desolation to the sideroads off the main drag. Behind and around the big-block headquarters of the local paper, the shadows are deep, as they are around the Bakery Thriftshop across the street, its facade like the whitewashed walls of an abandoned warehouse. This is all seen from the road, where the 1978 Ford cruises along. It may or may not be 1993, but the teenage boy driving the truck is most certainly me. I had my own car by now, so I’m not sure why I was in my dad’s truck–perhaps mine was in the shop, I don’t know. Memory’s not yielding this detail. What memory does yield, however, is the music I was listening to: the album Pod, by The Breeders. The old Ford had a cassette deck, but I was all 1993-modern with my compact discs. My solution was to set a boom box on the seat next to me, but for this to work, I had to have enough D batteries. Did I buy the batteries that night, or did I find them at home? I don’t remember this detail, either, but it’s likely I bought them, because nobody keeps enough D batteries lying around to power anything. Or maybe they were C batteries. Whatever they were, I went through a lot of trouble to listen to The Breeders. No one was with me, and I had nowhere to be, but when you’re young and restless and have a driver’s license, sometimes you just have to get out, and if you’re going to get out, you’ve got to have music you love. So I traveled the sideroads, alone and looking for signs of life, while Kim Deal sang “When I Was a Painter.”