Skate Dad: NEAL THOMPSON with Marina Petrova
Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood
The best quote about parenting I’ve ever read was: “Raising a child is like taking care of someone who is on way too many shrooms, while you yourself is on a moderate amount of shrooms. I’m not confident in my decisions, but I know you should not be eating a mousepad.” The quote is by Ron Funches, a comedian, actor, and writer, whom I knew little about, but fell in love with immediately . What’s worse, I thought, is that kids have no idea their parents are also “tripping.” Parenting, in its basic form, is pretending with confidence to have the know-how of getting around a life. The joke is on you, the parent—your child won’t know that you don’t know. You’ll fumble through achieving their survival while putting forth your best poker face. They will up the ante, hoping against all hope that you’re not bluffing. There is no escape from your own dreaded parental authority.
There is no escape, but there are short reprieves. Recently, I spent a week at a writing residency for parents in the town of Mineral, WA. During my blissful time in the company of other ecstatic short-term escapees, I met Neal Thompson. He came to The Mineral School to read from his memoir, Kickflip Boys. Neal Thompson is the author of multiple nonfiction books, such as A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR and Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard—America's First Spaceman. His newest work, and his only memoir to date, is about raising his two skateboarding sons. Thompson, in his role as a skate dad, tells a story of defiance, frustration, fear of failure, and love. He writes about parenting without pretense and with self-deprecating humor. When I finished the book, I had to continue the conversation about writing and parenting.
Marina Petrova (Rail): Your memoir is simultaneously an anthropological study of the skateboarding culture and a personal story of a father raising two sons. There seems to be a careful balance between these two threads. We learn about skateboarding and its history while getting to know your family. Did you make a conscious effort to find this balance? How were you able to maintain it?
Neal Thompson: I’m glad that the balance seems somewhat intentional, because the plan was never to write a memoir at all. Initially I’d envisioned more of a journalistic exploration of the skate culture that my kids had immersed themselves in. Little by little, it became more and more personal, more about our family, more of an exploration of my role as an imperfect and vulnerable father. But it took me years before I admitted to my family (or myself) that this book had become a memoir. I just kept getting pulled in that direction, and it was invigorating and a little terrifying. But, to your point, it was a constant challenge to find the right balance. I wanted to expose readers to the culture and play the role of journalist, anthropologist, ethnographer. But I also wanted to tell a good story, and not just analyze. What pushed it into full-on memoir territory was when my kids got into high school. That’s when I realized, “oh, shit… this is skateboarding—the drugs, the graffiti, the disregard for academics and authority and rules and boundaries.”
Rail: It was fascinating to learn some skateboarding vocabulary. I can now define words such as kickflip or ollie. There also is a great moment when you secretly record the boys’ conversation in the car, so you could learn their language. Did you do any other research on the skateboarding vocabulary? Or did the knowledge come from being a skate dad?
Thompson: Early in my kids’ skating days, I was so smitten by the aesthetic of it all—the clothes, the language, the style, the attitude. I found it all so poetic and darkly beautiful and fun and weird, even if I knew there was something dangerous lurking behind it all. The journalist in me wanted to know more. Like, where did the ollie come from, and the kickflip, and why? What did those tricks and the intent behind it and the words to describe it all mean? So yeah, I did do a lot of research: asking my kids and their friends, reading books by and about skaters, interviewing Tony Hawk and other skaters. But I also tried to just let the scenes—and the boys, in their own (sometimes recorded) words—speak for themselves, rather than pretend that I had reached some deeper level of understanding. I wanted to maintain the outsiders’ awe and give readers a peek behind the curtain of skate culture without pretending I had figured it all out.
Rail: What would you say was your biggest parenting “surprise?” For me, it was the loss of myself (partially, I hope) as a rational being. The moment my son was born, I was overwhelmed by this instinctual need to protect him at any cost. I thought I was a rational being, but there I was containing myself from wrapping all the furniture in the house in sterilized bubble wrap. No one warned me about this—struggling to tell the difference between real danger and perceived. What was your biggest “surprise” when it came to raising Sean and Leo?
Thompson: When it came to the skateboarding I was forced early on to give up on the idea that I could be my kids’ protector, that I could bubble wrap them. In the book I describe what it was like to fight for years to force them to wear helmets, only to eventually be worn down by their unwillingness to protect themselves. And the deeper lesson, or surprise, was discovering that my inability to force them to wear helmets was just one example of what it meant to be a father: I couldn’t hold their hands and keep them safe forever. I had to learn to start letting go, to let them be who they needed to be. And that, at times, was terrifying. And you’re right: no one warned me, and I felt ill-prepared for that daily push-pull between keeping your kids close and setting them free. I also nursed memories of my reckless brother, who’d been hospitalized multiple times for motorcycle or snowmobiling accidents, and I’d wonder if my kids were destined to be a wildman like him, or more cautious like me. But the only way to find out was to let them go.
Rail: You’re also frank about needing a drink, and at times Xanax, to manage your fears. The truth is, when it comes to raising kids, we survive best we know how. Do you think a little help from these substances kept you from locking your sons in a closet just to get a decent night’s sleep?
Thompson: It’s a bummer to admit, but absolutely. I found bourbon to be a required tool for maintaining my sanity as a parent. Some readers will hear that, or read the book, and think “alcoholic!” And I do, in the book, try to explore my relationship with alcohol, which I would describe as “cozy.” The truth is: I love a good drink. Or two. And as an adult I’ve worked hard, mostly with success, to avoid drinks number three, four, or five.
Rail: You include a lot of stories about you and your brother growing up “free range,” though that term hadn’t been invented back then. The parallel between the kind of trouble you and your brother got into and your sons’ “adventures” is obvious. Do you think knowing your own history made it more difficult to watch your sons’ similar exploits? Or did it have the opposite effect? Did you think, well, I came out alright as an adult and so will they?
Thompson: I’ve had some version of this conversation with so many other parents, and how we all told ourselves “as long as they don’t do half the shit I did, they’ll be fine.” I’m not shy in the book about exposing my dumb-ass high school episodes. So I knew some of that was coming—I mean, my kids practically telegraphed from their toddler years. What I didn’t expect was that they’d surpass me as troublemakers. And when those troubles escalated, my wife and I questioned all of our “free range” parenting decisions. Did we give them too long a leash? Maybe. Would it have been better if we’d reined them in a little tighter? Fenced them in or clipped their wings? I don’t think so. We raised them to be independent and adventurous, and had no choice but to accept the results. It was terrifying at times. (see: bourbon) But now, as I look at the beautiful and bold young men they’ve become? I’m not sure I would change a thing.
Rail: The skateboarding road trip you took with across the country sounded like an adventure your sons would never forget. But you recalled being on long drives with your own parents: “Nothing to say, the car filled with a cloud of teenaged rage. As dad, I hated such shitty moments. I hated being the enforcer.” I understand, and relate to, your disdain for being the enforcer. But often there is no choice. Do you ever wonder if being more comfortable with the role of the enforcer would make one better at it? Maybe even more patient and more forgiving?
Thompson: This is an interesting question, and I think many parents struggle with the tension between wanting to be your kid’s friend and needing to be the boss. And in the book, I try to explore that question: should we have been stricter, tougher? Mary and I were very adaptive, I think. We kept shifting our tactics, trying to find the right balance between keeping them compliant and keeping them close. But I learned along the way that too many rules and punishments and admonitions add up to a bummer of a family lifestyle. At least that was our experience. I did, quite often, feel like the bad cop, the disappointed, pissed-off dad, and I struggled at times to be more like my wife: patient and forgiving.
Rail: One of my favorite segments in the memoir is when you write about Sean: “He also preferred the drama of defiance to the quiet of compliance. Skateboarding stoked this attitude.” I thought that observation extremely astute. It’s evident how interested you are in your sons, in learning what makes them tick and who they are as human beings. For you, parenting isn’t a project where success is judged by which college your child was accepted to, would you agree?
Thompson: Most parents assume their kid will follow some version of the typical path: get good grades, play some sports, adopt some hobby, take the SAT, go to college. It was difficult to sense, from an early age, that my boys might not follow that path. In fact, they actively distrusted that path, and often rebelled against it. That meant Mary and I had to rethink what it meant for our kids to be successful humans. We’d be out to dinner with other parents, talking about their kids in the school play, or working on a science project. And Mary and I would be looking across the table at each other thinking, “Well, our sons skipped class to skate through downtown Seattle, then made a YouTube video of it.” There is so much I admired about how my kids sought freedom and fun, and so much that drove me crazy about their unwillingness to play the game. Especially when it was obvious that they were capable of good grades, if only they tried. Many of their teachers saw something lurking deep inside them both and were also frustrated by their inability to coax it out. All of which meant Mary and I had to find other ways to gauge our “success” as parents. And I think the conclusion we eventually reached was this: are they happy, and are they loved, and do they know that they’re loved? And they were.
Rail: I will never forget Sean’s note, the one he wrote to you and your wife, after coming across a number of parenting books you were reading at the time. He addressed the note to “weirdos” and wrote: “STOP READING BOOKS ON HOW TO RAISE ME.” It appears that Sean inherited your self-awareness and your sense of humor. Do you think being a writer helped you, even a little bit, in dealing with all the fears and frustration as they were occurring? Were you able to examine and laugh at yourself then? Or did that perspective come later, when you were writing the memoir?
Thompson: Great question, and I’ve often wondered whether my writing life and my life as a reader and storyteller helped or hurt my parenting. On the one hand, reading books about parenting, skateboarding, boys, rebellion, or just a great novel or memoir often gave me a perspective on what I call the long view. Basically, we all go through our ups and downs, as do our kids, and the mature parent needs to be patient and not panic and have faith in the long game. Then again, as a writer, I probably thought I could control the narrative more than I actually could. I don’t think I had much awareness of this at the time, so writing the memoir became the equivalent of my daily therapy session. With bourbon.
Rail: At one point, a call from Sean’s teacher gives you a new perspective and hope about who your son is. The teacher tells you that your son is not a bad kid, not a troublemaker, but a boy who asks why. “Now he had another name. One that made more sense. He was a boy who asked why. A lot.” But it’s hard not to notice how much you ask “why” in your memoir—and it’s a lot. You question your decisions, reactions, and seem to be always on a lookout for a cause and effect. Do you think Sean picked up this habit from you?
Thompson: As a former journalist, and maybe just as a former distruster of authority, I’ve been asking “why” my whole life. It’s just hardwired into me. But as a parent, I think this sensibility sometimes worked against me, added to my anxiety and, at times, depression. Mainly because I didn’t know the answer to the question, “why?” I describe how my wife is more of an efficient thinker; she reaches a conclusion, makes a decision, and moves on. Meanwhile, I hem and haw, and too often ask, “Is this the right approach here? What if we tried that? Or that?” It’s tough to say what traits our kids inherited from us, and whether it’s a nature-or-nurture equation. I will say this: whatever combination of qualities my boys observed, adopted, or inherited from my wife and I, they absolutely were raised to ask questions, challenge norms, and think for themselves. As parents, we were both the enablers of that attitude, and too often the victims.
Rail: You write about your wife Mary in the book, but sparingly. Your love and respect for her really comes through. It’s as if you’re being careful in choosing what words on the page to dedicate to her, making sure every word you write about Mary has a purpose. So many marriages today seem to not survive raising children. But toward the end of the memoir it seems like you and Mary grow stronger together. What do you think helped you along the way?
Thompson: The truth is, Mary wasn’t entirely comfortable with this book, and her role in the story was a challenge for me to handle. She warmed to it over time, but initially she didn’t love the idea of being a “character” in her husband’s memoir. In early drafts I tried to keep her off to the side, as a way to protect her. But as friends and family read early drafts, they observed two things: 1. Where’s your wife? and 2. Whenever Mary was on the page, the story sparked. So Mary slowly came around to realizing that the story needed her. She provided a little stability, sanity, and humor amid the chaos of her three dumb boys’ antics. And by trusting me to write more about her, she gave me (and this book) a great gift. She allowed me to show how we as a couple not only survived the madness of raising noncompliant boys, but emerged a stronger couple. As I explain late in the book, life eventually became less about the boys, more about us.
Rail: The person in the book you judge the harshest is yourself. You are very honest about being unhappy with some of your actions, with losing control, yelling at them, or kicking in the door to one of their rooms when you were angry. Now that your sons are older, do you judge yourself less harshly?
Thompson: It’s a work in progress, but yes. In fact, this book helped me figure some of that out. It allowed me to look back at all the angst and anxiety and realize, “what the fuck was I so worried about?” I think I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy worrying about things that were out of my control. I also wasted time believing I could control my kids, and then feeling shitty when they messed up—as if it was my failure, not theirs. I’ve said elsewhere that this book was therapy for me, and I do feel that it exorcised some of my self-hatred. Yoga and bourbon helped, too.
Rail: In the past, you have written nonfiction books about Robert Ripley, the astronaut Alan Shepard, and NASCAR, among others. How was the process of writing memoir different, if it was? And do you think you’d ever undertake writing another memoir?
Thompson: Writing this book was extremely liberating. For more than 20 years, as a journalist, biographer, and nonfiction author, I had been writing about other people (many of them flawed men, as it turned out). Turning my journalist’s gaze at myself, my father, my brother, and my sons allowed me to explore where my curiosity about flawed and vulnerable men came from. I found I really enjoyed the freedom to write in a way that didn’t feel bound to the norms of historical nonfiction. I was loosed from the obligations of the biographer, and found it exciting, at this stage of my career, to find a new style of writing—less research, more story; less detail, more emotion; a faster, more focused pace.
Rail: Throughout all the frustration, there is always a thread of hope in the story, especially at the end. You write, “My kids are unique and challenging boundary pushers with so much potential and all I can do is to love them, believe in them, give them room, wait and hope and pray. And sometimes drink. And cry.” How are you sons doing now? Are they still into skateboarding and are you still as hopeful?
Thompson: My sons do still skateboard—a bit less than they’d like, and far less than they used to, and it sometimes bothers them that they don’t have the same freedom to skate for hours and hours. But it’s something they’ll do for years to come, just as I’ve been skiing for nearly 50 years and plan to continue for a few more decades. I love that skateboarding will forever be part of their identity. As for how they’re doing now, I promised the boys I wouldn’t talk too much about what they’re up to now. But I will say, with great relief and more than a little pride, that they’re doing great. One is in college, the other is working a full-time job that he loves. I think they’ll always have a complex relationship with “the world,” but for now, they’ve each found a path that makes sense to them.
MARINA PETROVA's writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Brooklyn Rail, Late Night Library, Underwater New York and Sugared Water magazine. She lives in New York.