A Boy’s Life

I walked out of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial not giving much of a shit about the stupid rubber alien with the glowing finger. That was just the plot. Even at the age of ten I could tell that the plot of that movie was entirely irrelevant to the film’s true message, which had sweet F.A. to do with aliens. In this case, the medium was the message, that medium being perfectly captured by E.T.’s working title of A Boy’s Life.

The world of A Boy’s Life was alien to me in ways that had nothing to do with waddling creatures or spaceships. I had grown up in tree-thick communities, hoary with snow then hot with decomposing leaves, short sightlines and old houses. Though I’d left Brooklyn a full thirty-five years before the wannabes and the jerkoff Gawkerites arrived, I’d seen early in life that New Yorkers never looked up. There is no vista to see. Your vision is blocked on all sides. This was as true in the dignified decay of Upper Arlington, Ohio as it had been in Columbia, MD and everywhere else.

The world of E.T. was something else entirely. It was barren, bare, the open California sky above and the naked dirt to all sides. The homes squatted close to the ground. Until I saw that movie and really looked at it, I’d never considered that perhaps the sun of the East Coast was fettered by humidity and the omnipresent deciduous canopy above. When Danger Girl came here from New Mexico three years ago, she confessed that the rolling, absurdly fertile Ohio landsdcape made her paranoid, claustrophobic. Surrounded by living things.

And, of course, you had the BMX bikes, Ceppie Maes and Bob Haro making Kuwahara famous. There was so much freedom to be had out there. In Ohio my peers and I were relentlessly tracked and oppressed by intact family units and a neighborhood that considered discipline to be a distributed service, like the French Resistance always three steps too slow or stupid to outwit the Wehrmacht, but out in the amorphous amalgamation of Spielberg’s ur-Cali, the kids ran free, their divorced mothers out pursuing their own pleasure every night and abandoning their progeny to a sort of benign anarchy full of D&D games and unsupervised insanity. The very fact that these kids could hide a being from another planet in their house for days at a time… my mother would have discovered E.T. three hours after he touched down. Max.

I longed for that California the way Huck Finn yearned for the Territory. My BMX friends went without me, moved to Westminster and other places to live the dream. I put my head down and went to school instead. There are people I could blame for that decision but it would be weak of me to do so. The choice was mine. I didn’t acquire a genuine working knowledge of California until I was in my late thirties. Nowadays I know most of the state’s racetracks and backroads pretty well. I’ve probably spent a hundred days of my life in the Golden State, from San Diego to Eureka and points north.

No matter what I do as an adult, however, when it comes to that idealized California childhood I will forever be an outside, a cargo-cult native of a backwards island worshiping a Coke bottle. Which brings me to the story I’d like to share with you: the life of a modern Californian boy, told by someone who understands the San Fernando Valley the way I understand the side streets and forested paths of central Ohio.


My long-time readers know of my admiration for a blog called Up In The Valley. Its proprietor is a sensitive, thoughful man who is unafraid to approach matters with the kind of morally-conscious — dare I say Christian? — approach that was once considered to be the default educated American sentiment but which in today’s doubleplusgood duckspeak environment is considered slightly more recondite than the Gospel Of Thomas. The demands of honesty in this context also force me to admit that I find his wife just a touch delightful; she reminds me of every voluptuous Catholic-school part-time teacher I had as a child.

Last month, our author considered the fragile state of California boyhood in $THE_CURRENT_YEAR. I’d encourage you to read what he has to say. Normally I tend to automatically dismiss the opinion of childless men when it comes to the care and feeding of sons, but I think “Mr. Upinthevalley” has tapped into his own childhood desires here to consider the unpleasant contrast between that E.T. daydream and the dangerous reality.

We don’t have it so bad in Ohio any more. Last night, as has been our constant weekend practice as of late, John and I went to Ray’s MTB park so he could spend three hours riding trails. He is now competent to ride the mile-long, often quite daunting “flow trail” on his own. He insists on going without me. I wave him off as if I don’t have a care in the world. Then I wait fifteen nervous minutes conceiving his death or serious injury on every dropoff, every box jump, every high-speed two-story downhill. He returns and I smile. I tell him that I’m bored and that I want to ride as well. Then we proceed together, his annoyance with my presence a sort of spiritual nourishment to me, this idea that he wants to fly solo. The day is coming when he will be able to drop me effortlessly on the trail, his ascending abilities crossing the line marked by my inevitable sunset as a rider. I look forward to that day. He is already so good on the bike, so fast, able to absorb the twenty pounds into the scant fifty he carries in his own body and move them together as one.

someday I’ll fly
someday I’ll soar
cause I’m bigger than my body
gives me credit for

15 Replies to “A Boy’s Life”

  1. hank chinaski

    Eerie. Last night’s ‘movie night’ at the Chinaski house was Speilberg’s other ode to Cali suburbia, ‘Poltergeist’, complete with the (then and now) milf-tastic Jobeth Williams (sports jersey and white panties FTW) and the red angry rectum gate to hell.

    Drowning crossing a river, even a concrete one, seems an almost 19th century death for a boy today. I am sad to say that my mind first defaults to the fates of Adam Walsh and Etan Patz when I first hear of these tragedies. Numerically, of course, the GMC Yukons have it.

    Jack, if I may be so bold, from whence in King’s do you hale?

  2. Robert

    “in the amorphous amalgamation of Spielberg’s ur-Cali, the kids ran free, their divorced mothers out pursuing their own pleasure every night and abandoning their progeny to a sort of benign anarchy full of D&D games and unsupervised insanity.” – Succinctly describes my teenaged years. I guess it was true for suburban Houston too, where I could ride my motocross bike for hours and not be bothered on the boundary between farmland and suburbs where I grew up.

    Thanks for reminding me, I need to show my boys The Gods Must Be Crazy.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Can’t say I did, although that seems like a perfect Arlington name. Did they go through the Catholic system or through Tremont/Jones?

      • SIV

        Fuck if I know, I’m not from Ohio. Older one is an artist, dated her HS best friend. Worked with the younger for most of a year, she was a national track&field star. Weird coincidence that occurred decade+ apart. Only reason I know of your town.

  3. -Nate-Nate

    That blog appears to be well written .
    .
    Why are the comments closed so quickly ? .
    .
    Me, I don’t much like the SFV apart from all the Junk yards and Auto Shops in the Eastern side of it .
    .
    -Nate

  4. Tyler

    A good friend recently emigrated to Costa Rica. She said of being back home in northwest Ohio that it is more deeply beautiful than she gave it credit for, and that to its credit there are fewer plants and animals that wish her physical harm.

    Your wife’s point about feeling closed in is well-taken. I grew up in suburban Cleveland and went to college in Milwaukee. After a decade plus in the reclaimed farmland part of Toledo, now my old stomping grounds feel to me like they went through the Death Star’s garbage compactor. Trees! Houses!

    But: what a park system.

  5. nightfly

    Beautiful, sir. I have a son, not yet four. It’s already a joy to watch him just go on “big boy rides” at Great Adventure without me. Hopefully this is a preview of more joyful days to come.

  6. astute.reader

    What do you think about Haro’s new mountain bikes? Legit, or existing solely for “optimizing market synergies”?

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Sorry for the late response on this. Much of Haro’s MTB strategy has always consisted of just ordering from the Chinese takeout menu. I don’t know that this will be any different, to be honest.

  7. Aoletsgo

    I grew up in a posh new sub located in an up and comming suburb. A creek two doors down was one of the best things about it – besides the packs of kids to play with (everyone had 4-8 kids back then). Our creek was a wild life refuge from the manicured tract homes, with frogs, minows, snakes, stick boat races and just fooling around with out parents! I could not believe that in my teenage years they “improved” the area by burying the creek in a pipe and extending sod over the burial ground.

  8. Disinterested-Observer

    Even as an adult I sometimes marvel at the difference between the east and west.

    Anywhere from the Atlantic to even as far as the Colorado line you are more likely than not to be on someone’s property. Once you get near or past the Mississippi the property may be part of a billion acre farm that you are unlikely to get in trouble for playing on, but it usually belongs to someone. Out west, even close to to LA there will be large pockets of vacant or federal land on which people do everything from ride dirtbikes to grow or manufacture drugs.

    Another difference is the humidity and weather in general. I was out at the pointy end of Nevada not long after the housing bubble burst and there was a subdivision that just stopped, like the builder went bankrupt and couldn’t even sell the houses that were mostly done. The houses looked like the crew had just left that day but it had been a year or more. Anywhere back east, north to south, they would have been damaged by the weather in a matter of weeks and rotted into the ground in a couple of months.

  9. -Nate-Nate

    Ya, right ! .
    .
    John has a loving and involved father who probably never makes a point of telling him he should never have been born .
    .
    I had to go find my own bicycle in 1960 or so, it was an ancient POC with 29″ balloon tires, back then no one still made tubes for them so I had to learn how to patch them before teaching my self how to ride .
    .
    Kids are the worlds’ single most important resource, nice to see someone realizing that and making sure he learns and improves him self .
    .
    I bet he likes the color .
    .
    GO John ! compete, learn and prosper .
    .
    -Nate

Comments are closed.