Like Tootie Ramsey on "The Facts of Life" I spent most of my childhood on roller skates.
White with purple laces, my skates were an extension of my legs; I was so committed to my daily roll through my slice of suburbia. Like any New Orleans kid, I knew which roads were the least bumpy, those sections of pavement that were smooth without potholes or buckling from oak tree roots. My sweet spot was a corner house one block over that had a semicircle driveway. The concrete was perfectly slick. I could enter at one end, exit at the other end, and loop around making a complete circle. It was inclined so I had to control my speed to make the turn. After multiple skinned knees and elbows I finally nailed it.
That driveway was my getaway. It’s where I went to be bored and where I escaped to just be. Sometimes I’d pick berries from the shrubs that edged the driveway and line up two rows of them on the downward slope of the driveway and slowly roll down, holding on to my knees, trying to squish them under my purple wheels. The owner of the house was a single woman who worked long hours. I never actually spoke to her, but I liked to think that she knew about me and that she never fussed over my trespassing because she appreciated that I thought her house was special too.
One night the sirens of fire trucks pulled me from my Tiger Beat magazine. My family and I ran to the front porch. Pop said something about a fire. Mom said something about the corner. I ran to the street and watched as the house with the semicircle driveway succumbed to flames. The owner stood thirty yards away from me, crying. I wanted to give her a hug, but I was just a kid. Later the house was roped off and a heavy, smoky odor lingered. The house was condemned. I didn’t stop skating entirely after that, but the magic was gone. My adventures were tainted and the bumpy pothole streets that I was left with were uninspiring.
I’m often criticized for having my head in the clouds. I live under the assumption that everything will go as planned. It’s like that book, The Secret, only with a more stubborn approach. If I envision something enough, why wouldn’t it come true? So when I’m slapped by reality, I have a tendency to throw what I call an optimist’s tantrum. When a pessimist rants, there’s something expected about it. It’s a “told you so” moment and pitiful because we wonder if they’ll ever be happy. When an optimist, like myself, loses it, it’s because I honestly believed everything was going to be okay. I feel a shocked, offended disappointment—the kind that replaces innocence with obstinacy. “My driveway’s gone? Well guess what. I didn’t want to skate anymore anyway.” It’s a one-upping fail because there are always just two paths in life: the one we plan on and the one we actually get. Experience has proven this to me, and I worry if eventually it will turn me into a pessimist.
We’re all visionary. We see what we think is a perfect capture of how we should experience something—the route for a road trip, job growth, childbirth. I’ve been known to force my visions into reality as my family stood by, exhausted and irritated, while I fought to make “magic” happen. Sometimes it’s worth my own exhaustion. Other times, I should have let the chips fall because the only thing I actually have control over is my reaction to reality.
So how do I skate my way through adulthood like an optimist, knowing I have about as much control now as I did when I watched the driveway house burn?
I know enough to know that reality will bite me on the ass and hurt like hell, but I can be real without being a pessimist. Realists accept and move forward in spite of disappointment. Pessimists accept that any move will be disappointing. I envy those motivated by the challenges of reality because I require time to decide how I will live with change. I need a moment to part with what I had hoped for. I’ll probably always be obstinate to change, but fighting a lost cause will only make me a victim of reality.
The house on the corner was eventually torn down. The driveway buckled on both slopes. Just the center remained smooth, but it also slanted over time. The berry shrubs took over. It’s creepy how easily man-made invention gives way to the natural order when left alone. So, too, can I give way to natural hopefulness when I’m allowed a moment to accept the reality I’ve been given.
I shouldn’t have hung up my skates so soon. While I was busy having an optimist’s tantrum, I missed the smooth pavement in other places. If only I had one-upped myself instead.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.