Dexter, my ten year-old, recently blew the dust off an old skateboard he found in our garage and started taking tentative runs down the driveway that reminded me of his wobbling first steps.
"Come on, Dad! Skate with me. It will be awesome," he'd say.
"Kid, I'm 8000 years old," I'd reply. "I'll break a hip."
Getting back on a skateboard with my middle age paunch and grey beard seemed ridiculous and anyway, I was sure he'd give it up like he gave up fidget spinners. But he kept with it, and before long, he was carving the driveway like a surfer at Pipeline.
One day at the park, I was watching him decide whether to skate down the "big hill." He'd never had the courage to do it before, so he just stood there at the top, warily looking down the ribbon of footpath before him.
I was debating whether to give him an "out," to say, "Isn't that a little steep, buddy?" or to let him risk a fall. I decided to stay quiet and watch, reassuring myself that even if he did wipe out, he probably wouldn't die.
Before long, he pushed off, and as he gathered speed, he went from fearful to confident. He looked like a skater.
He reached the bottom of the hill in one piece, and called out, "Did you see that? I did it, Dad!" and it hit me like a truck: Soon he's going to skate away from me.
In a few years he's not going to care whether I "saw that" or not. He's not going to ask me to skate with him or read him stories. He's heading for that island where teenagers live, the place adults can barely remember, and parents can't even visit. The best we can hope is he stays safe, wears clean clothes most of the time, and maybe sends a postcard.
So I decided I didn't care if I looked like a fat-arse having a midlife crisis, if I pulled every muscle in my body, broke an elbow, skinned my knees, or skinned my face. Whatever. I was going to skate with my kid as long as he wanted me to.
Lots of Parents Are Doing It
I was half-hoping the employees at the local skate shop would talk me out of my suicidal attempt at father-son bonding. Maybe they'd say, "You're way too lame to ride anything but a Rascal, Daddy-o!" (that's how I imagine skateboarders talk), but I got the opposite treatment instead: a knowledgeable skateboarding professional who didn't even call me a geezer once.
"It's not unusual at all," Brian Hanson, a clerk at Los Angeles' legendary surfing and skateboarding retailer Val Surf told me. "We probably get about three or four parents a month who come in looking for a board to ride with their kids."
Which Skateboard is Right For You?
There are a ton of skateboard options for all skill levels and wallets, from tiny "penny boards" that fit in your backpack, to the street-trick style ice blocks the kids ride, all the way up to massive longboards.
Longboards are the ultimate, old guy/gal skateboard choice. Originally designed for downhill riding, they generally have a low profile, and softer, bigger wheels for greater comfort. They're stable, so you can cruise easily, getting tons of mileage out of a single push and enjoying a smooth, even ride. You can even pick up a land paddle and get an upper body workout without ever having to push at all. A great choice if you're new to skating.
But most traditional skateboard tricks — your kickflips and FS 180s — aren't reasonable on a longboard, and you won't see many people riding them at skateparks. For that, you want the lighter street-style board.
According to Val Surf employee Hanson, the best advice is "go with what you know."
"Get what you're used to riding," Hanson said. "If someone was skating in the 1980s, say, we can set up a board exactly like that."
Surprisingly, they still make everything I used to ride back then, so I was able to recreate my childhood skateboard exactly — Hosoi Hammerhead deck, Independent trucks, and squishy Orange Juice wheels. It's only missing the Siouxsie and the Banshees sticker.
Although I (probably) won't be dropping into the huge ramps and bowls the Hammerhead was designed for, it's wide and stable, but not too heavy for nollies and shove-its (should I decide to learn how to do these modern tricks).
For many, recreating the old rig is the right choice, but if you're used to riding a penny board or a plank with metal roller skate wheels bolted to it, you might want to up your game. Cheap sporting equipment is not only less fun to use, it can be dangerous, and now that you're old, hopefully you can afford the skateboard you used to only dream of.
Seriously, Wear a Helmet and Pads and Make Your Kid Do the Same
I used to skate in only a pair of cutoff jeans and some high-tops, but I was an idiot, and I have the scars to prove it. Now I realise that you need protection when doing anything remotely dangerous, so I picked up a helmet, knee and elbow pads, and wrist-guards.
Make sure your kid wears solid, certified pads, too, especially at the skate park. This is not the place to skimp. Skateboarding is dangerous, but pads can prevent a ton of potential injuries. Maybe your kid will keep wearing a helmet as a teenager and you're not around. Anything is possible.
That First Ride
Suitably armoured and with my new/old board under my arm, Dexter and I left the skate shop. I put my Hammerhead down on the parking lot and tentatively stepped on.
I'd given up skating for cars and girls when I was 16. That was a lot of years ago, so I was ready for a long learning curve, to be a beginner again. But that's not how it went. As soon as I pushed off, time went backwards.
All of my abilities were right there, as if I'd never stopped riding. The subtle combination of balance and power it takes to ride a skateboard clicked into place instinctually. My center of gravity is way different and my muscles are decrepit from deskwork and age, but somehow my body remembered. My cells remembered.
I pulled off a couple of 180 kickturns and a nose manual, and I was graceful, with an old-school, 1970s, surf-inspired style. I experienced the flow of skating, the feeling that makes it more like an art or a prayer than a sport, and for a moment, I wasn't an old man anymore. I was a skater. I'd come home.
Take it Easy, Pops and Mums
It didn't last long.
After maybe seven minutes of epiphany/euphoria, I stepped off my board, and everything hurt. My knees. My ankles. My back. The bottoms of my feet. Everything.
Skateboarding is way more physically difficult for older people than kids. It's important to respect that, to realise the limitations of your fitness, and to start small and build up to longer, more strenuous rides. Ice and ibuprofen are a must. No matter how gradually you ramp it up, skateboarding uses a unique set of muscles, and unless you're uber fit, you'll feel it the next day. (As with beginning any new exercise routine, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor.)
The ground is also way harder than it used to be. I found that out at the local skate park, when my first attempt at a rock-to-fakie ended up with a full on slam to the concrete. You'll feel great riding, and your body will trick you into thinking you can "snap back" into the maneuvers and tricks you used to do, but it's an illusion. Although the basics came back to me instantly, the more difficult aspects of skating — vert riding, heel-flips, etc — just don't work the way they used to. So take it easy.
It's possible to recapture your old moves — and even get better — as an older skater, but you have to approach it differently. Kids will throw themselves down a half-pipe with no thought of the consequences, then wipe out 50 times, until they finally land their trick. That can be a great way to learn for children, but when you're older, you need to push the envelope carefully and gradually. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but you gotta learn them carefully.
It's All About That Bonding
In the few month Dex and I have been skating together, I've pulled my calf muscle twice, skinned my knee for the first time since I drunkenly fell out of a bar in my 20s, and I wake up so stiff every morning I can barely get out of bed. And God knows how many judgmental suburban mums have clucked their tongues at my midlife crisis from inside their SUVs.
But it's worth it. It's so fun.
In the perpetual present tense of childhood, Dexter probably thinks he'll always skate with his dad every day after school. But I know how quickly it will be over. Maybe in a year or maybe tomorrow, Dexter might stash his board next to his dusty Lego sets in the closet and never pick it up again. Maybe he'll tell me, "Dad, I'd rather skate with my friends," or maybe he won't say anything at all.
I don't when or how the separation will come, but I know it's inevitable. I know my job is to make sure it happens as smoothly and gracefully as a perfectly carved bank, but until that day comes, I'm there with him.
I don't care if I get hurt. I don't care if I look silly. Until ten-year-old Dexter is gone forever, we're gonna strap on our helmets and bomb the big hill at the park. We're gonna work on landing that frontside 180, put band-aids on skinned elbows and ice up sore muscles. We're gonna skate together as long and hard as we can.