One of my earliest memories is of being terrified of the long, covered water slide at Cherry Hill. I’m not sure how old I was. 24, maybe 25. Kidding. I was probably 5 or 6. My parents tried to convince me all day long to go down the water slide: Just once! You’ll love it! I imagine some bribes were offered: We’ll cut your yard work in half, so you should be able to go play with your friends by 7 PM, assuming you can get your bleeding knuckles bandaged quickly! And the thing was, I really wanted to. I was perfectly aware that various 2 year-old girls were happily climbing into their mother’s laps to go down the slide, and I knew that people were looking at them, and then looking at me, and then looking at them, and then at me again. I also knew that few people were buying my line about having to be careful on account of my osteoporosis.
Not daring to do something that others did without hesitation was humiliating, and besides, the water slide actually looked like fun. But every time I waited in line and got within a few feet of the slide, my legs lost their ballast and my entire body seemed to collapse in around my heart, which started beating like a hummingbird’s wings. It wasn’t a mental or emotional process. It wasn’t that I was scared of something specific. I just felt terrified, in a purely physical way. I spent days like that pretending that I had just gotten done with a ride, or acting as though I was just about to go take another ride – “No, go ahead! I just have to take my osteoporosis medicine and then I’ll catch up!”
It’s not that I never got to the point where I’d do things like go down water slides as a kid – it’s just that I first dared to do them around 2 – 3 years after most kids my age. This embarrassing situation was made worse by the fact that Kook, 3 years my junior, was born with only two fears: work and Ryan’s preternaturally strong hands. Thus, I was sandwiched between Ryan, who was reasonably daring for his age, and Kook, who was reckless to the point of self-endangerment. The fact that my Dad successfully concealed what I now know must have been nearly overwhelming anger, shame and disgust with my cowardice will be what narrowly saves him from being placed in the Guatemalan Working-Rest Home alongside his wife, who will be free to return home when she’s picked three weeds for every one that I did from ages 4 – 18.
As I got older I gradually learned to do my best to ignore the fear I felt when I was confronted with a rope swing/roller coaster/girl. And to be honest, I think I did a fairly good job of overcoming the fear that was hardwired into my system. I don’t think any of my friends from childhood or adolescence would tell you I was Evel Kneivel, but there wasn’t ever anything they did that I didn’t, which is no small accomplishment, given that the years from 5 to 20 were filled with almost daily opportunities to face and overcome physical fear. Unfortunately, adults don’t get too many chances to overcome fear, which is why I love longboarding.
I spent my first 3 or 4 years in New York longboarding pretty regularly. We started out by going to a parking garage downtown late at night, which is more or less where I learned how to longboard. Take the elevator up, skate down 6 winding, oily floors, hop in the elevator, and repeat. And while it definitely took me some time to figure out the skills and techniques involved, it took me much longer to learn how to ignore the physical message of fear that my body sent my mind at every turn and carve, demanding that I bail out any time I started moving faster than the speed at which a little girl can ride her bike up a very steep hill. I started out by telling myself I had to go two whole levels of the garage without bailing out. It would take me a few runs to meet that goal, but I eventually got there, at which point I’d set a goal of 4 floors. And then the whole garage. And after a little while, the garage started seeming kind of easy.
So we moved uptown, and tried a bunch of hills – The Big Easy, The Poop Chute, Slippery Summer, The Stam. I eventually developed the ability to get down some decent-sized hills without killing myself. And while I was always more or less scared when I went down The Stam – the whole time, every time – I learned to ignore that fear, that constant demand that I bail out, go home, and take up Bingo. (And in my defense, the Stam is really scary. It’s about 7 blocks at a pretty steep angle on one of the busier avenues in New York. You have to know how to time the lights, and there always exists the possibility that a garbage truck will come plowing through a perpendicular street, looking to give someone a closed casket funeral. But there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts at the bottom, and if you time it right, you can get warm donuts, so it all events out.)
After going a once a week for 3 or 4 years, we kind of stopped. It’s been three or so years since we did, and the other night after a rough day I grabbed my board out of the loft and went for a ride in the park. It only took me a few runs to remember the physical motions involved, but I was shocked by just how much my ability to ignore my fear had deteriorated. I’ve been a time or two since then, and it’s taking me longer to build that immunity than I would have liked or expected. But I’m going to build it back, and I’m not going to lose it this time. And then I’m going to put on some water wings and go down the water slide at Cherry Hill all by myself.