At the edge of our driveway, next to the rosemary bush in our herb garden, is a flat rock, suitable for sitting on. We call it Aunt Fran’s rock, named for a dear soul who used to perch on it when she looked after our three-year-old son.
I was sitting on that rock a few days ago when our six-year-old grandson started showing off his hoverboard. It’s essentially an axle you stand on, powered by an electric motor with a rechargeable battery. Next to each wheel is a flat pad where you position your feet. A couple green lights blink when the device powers up. It emits a series of friendly, robot-y beeps.
The boy was wearing a helmet and protective wrist guards. “Watch this,” he said.
Tilt your feet slightly forward, rotating the axle slightly forward, and away you go. More rotation on the right side and you execute a left turn; more leftward rotation, you go right. Backward rotation slows the hoverboard and throws it in reverse. Want to go fast backwards? Want to make a backwards left turn, or just spin backwards around in a circle?
I was glad to see the boy was wearing safety gear.
When our kids were small and started riding bikes, we insisted on helmets. Helmets were just beginning to catch on. Getting them to wear one was a struggle. A prevailing double standard did not help matters. Back then, if you looked around and saw moms and dads biking with kids, kids wore helmets; parents (dads especially) did not. I rode with the kids. I did not own a helmet.
One day, in an act of good faith, I strapped on my son’s helmet and rode my bike over to a neighbor’s house, where our kids were having a swim. I chunked the kickstand down in the driveway, strolled into the backyard, the helmet still ostentatiously buckled under my chin, and took a seat next to my house-husband pal Walt.
“You’re wearing a helmet,” he said with a smile.
“You dope,” he whispered. “You have it on backwards.”
A few years later, at one of those smelly indoor roller skating arenas, at a birthday party for one of my son’s pals, while the boys ate cake I laced up a pair of skates and went for a couple laps. Why do they skate counterclockwise, I wondered, as I got up to speed. It felt great to skate. I felt like a kid again. Then, after a few minutes of exhilarating motion, going a little too fast, I lost control of my feet, went splat on the very hard hardwood floor, and broke my left wrist.
“Wanna try it?” my grandson said now. He rolled to a stop in front of me and stepped off the hoverboard.
What I thought was: I’m too old for this. What I thought was: I should at least have wrist guards. What I said was: “Yes.”
It was fun. It was precarious. It took me a few minutes to sort of get a feel for the foot work and rotation control. After a little practice, at a slow walking speed, I thought I could do it. I wanted to do it. I pictured myself cruising up and down the street out in front of the house. I realized right away, over-rotate forward and the thing just takes off, taking your feet with it, leaving the rest of you behind, falling over backwards. I was still being careful when that’s what happened. The thing rolled out from under me. I hit the asphalt, hard. I’m not telling anyone, especially not my wife, but I think it’s a hairline fracture, right wrist.
Now and then, you still hear people from my generation (dads especially) say: When I was a kid, I never wore a helmet and I turned out all right.
So proud they never suffered a closed-head injury.
This “we turned out just fine” testimony is meant to valorize their youth and the good old days, and to disparage current fussy, precious, overprotective practices. I never had wrist guards . . . I never wore seatbelts . . . I never got a flu shot . . . I ate all the sugary foods I wanted . . . I never heard of gluten free. . . I got smacked around by my parents . . .
And I turned out just fine.
Meet the anecdotal fallacy, reasoning from limited evidence. Psychologists refer to this as the “availability heuristic.” Australian wellbeing expert Justin Coulson explains, “We draw on information that is immediately available to us when we make a judgment call.” It was really cold yesterday in Muskegon. Therefore, global warming is a sham. I don’t know anyone with coronavirus. Therefore, it’s a government hoax, or at least not that dangerous. Therefore, why wear a mask.
I have no excuse. I’m my own disaster anecdote, living proof that I need to be careful.
My wife asks me: “So do you think that was smart?”
We’re on mile two of our seven mile walk. The six-year-old ratted me out. I’ve confessed: Yes, I rode it. Yes, I fell. “I don’t think it’s broken,” I say to her. “Look.” I trill my fingers, rotate my hand. “Articulation. Range of motion.”
“Still,” she says.
“All this walking we’re doing,” I say, changing the subject, “I think the sun is bleaching my hair. I notice it first thing in the morning when I look in the mirror.”
She tells me don’t be silly, that’s gray I’m seeing.
By the side of the road, a rabbit is eating whatever it eats. It must be tasty because we’re almost on top of it when it finally darts behind a lugubrious pine tree.
“Rabbits are not very sociable,” I say. “You usually only see one.”
“They eat our hastas.”
“What’s the collective noun for rabbit?”
“I thought a warren was where they hung out, their house, as it were.”
“As it were,” she says. “Elizabeth Potter would know.”
“A trample of rabbits.”
“A patter,” I say. “A patter of rabbits”
“Promise me you’re not going to ride that thing anymore.”
She has more common sense than I do. One year I joined a couple friends in Colorado to ski a few days. “Buy a helmet,” she said. I told her I would. “I mean it,” she said. “You don’t even wear a hat on the hill. Buy a helmet and wear it, please.” I told her I would. “Do it for me,” she said. “Please.”
I had never worn a helmet skiing. (And I turned out all right.) To me, being on the hill in bright sun, beneath cloudless blue sky, and skiing hatless was close to heaven. Helmets on the hill were definitely catching on, dads included.
The shop where I rented skis had helmets, for sale and for rent. Wearing OP’s (other people’s) roller skates was bad enough. Wearing a rental helmet seemed even more unhygienic and, well, just plain gross. That morning on the hill I took a selfie of myself, mountain in the background, bright sun, cloudless blue sky, me wearing my new helmet. My head looked like a big black egg. I sent her a couple photos which, I later learned, she shared with our daughter. The two of them spent a few minutes giggling over it, agreeing that I looked like a complete dork.
This age thing. Dylan Thomas comes to mind. “Rage against the dying of the light.” But to me, this isn’t about rage. I’m not there yet. It’s about horsing around against the gradual, almost imperceptible dimming of the light.
Across the street from my daughter, the neighbor guy, Andrew, is riding a one-wheel one day, a mode of transportation that looks even more treacherous than a hoverboard, a teeter-totter on a wheel. He spills, breaks a rib. There’s a lesson there.
“Did you hear the latest?” she says a week or so later. “Andrew and a pal are going to the Grand Canyon.”
“He’s going to run the Rim2Rim trail,” my son-in-law says. “I might go too. Wanna come?”
I tell him I don’t run.
“You could walk it,” he says. “You walk. You’re training. You’re in good shape.”
I tell him I’ll think about it.
In August of 1974 I came back to Michigan from Yosemite with a blue t-shirt that said “GO CLIMB A ROCK” on the front. For years it was one of my prized possessions. It said I’ve been somewhere. I did something. It said, Youth is not wasted on me. I not too vividly remember that somewhere in the park I did actually climb a rock with a few pals the day we were in Yosemite, following a trail high up to a mountain pool that flowed gradually toward one of those iconic Yosemite waterfalls. We swam briefly in that pool. The water was so cold it hurt.
Last summer, on a swing through national parks with some Italian friends, I went back to Yosemite, thinking I would find that path, that pool, that feeling of being 21 years old.
“Which trail?” my wife asked.
I couldn’t remember.
“What was the name of the pool or the waterfall?”
I couldn’t remember that either. It was almost fifty years ago.
She looked at the trail map. “You were on top of something, right? At a destination? Was it El Capitan? Was it Sentinel Rock? Or one of the domes? Sentinel Dome? Half Dome?”
“Mirror Lake,” I said, looking at the map. “Maybe that was it.”
We had a day. Our friends were kind of sick and didn’t speak much English. While they sunned themselves and took it easy, my wife and I hiked up to Mirror Lake Meadow, a five mile loop around the lake. The trail map described the hike as “moderately difficult; flat and long.”
The scenery was beautiful. The hike was moderately easy. Mirror Lake was not the pool I swam in all those years ago.
And that was okay. Some things, you just can’t go back, and probably shouldn’t even try. I don’t want to go fractured into the good night. But I’m not quite ready to go sit on a rock.