AS YOU ALREADY ASSUMED from the vowel at the end of my name, ours is a crime family. My son, Jake, is a hardened scofflaw. He’s 10. Just last summer I convinced him to flout his first ordinance. We’d flown from our home in Boulder, Colorado, to spend a week visiting my childhood home of Scituate, on the South Shore in Massachusetts. A favorite memory from my teenage years involves jumping from the Cohasset Bridge a few towns to the north. I wanted to share the experience with the little hoodlum. We made Granny drive the getaway car. My wife, Sarah, rode shotgun. In the '70s and '80s, the local police would occasionally take kids to the jailhouse for jumping the 25 feet into the tidal river. When they couldn’t catch you, they’d confiscate your Chuck Taylors and make your mom bring you in for a stern talking-to. Or so the story went. The fact that it was illegal only made it that much funner. The cops hitting their sirens. The kids scattering.
Jake and I padded nonchalantly to the bridge. It was much as I remembered it. The faded NO JUMPING signs were still stenciled into the asphalt. The concrete railing had been replaced with metal, but otherwise the only difference was the water, which looked cleaner. Some things have gotten better in the world.
It’s best to jump when the tide is coming in and almost full. That way the water is the deepest and the current pushes you away from the rapids by the harbor. Not that the rapids are very threatening. As kids we bodysurfed the wave train in both directions until the tide dropped and barnacles punched us full of holes. At high tide, I suppose, the only real danger would be drowning. And that would require not knowing how to swim.
The bridge was deserted as we approached the rail. It was a hot July afternoon. I wondered if law enforcement had increased or if the younger generation was at home playing Wii and only simulating coming of age. I could feel the tension buzzing from my son. His eyes shined with a new alacrity and focus. As we prepared to climb over to the ledge, two teenage boys walked up. They cautioned us that the current was strong and looked at Jake as if marking his age. He was two years younger than I had been the first time I jumped. A moment of doubt came over me, but Jake was already over the wall. The kid is half fish. I joined him on the ledge. The water looked farther away than I remembered. This was not the place to linger. Jake asked to hold my hand. We leaped on a three count.
MY LIFE IS A SERIES of mildly illegal acts. I have jumped where jumping is not allowed. Slept where sleeping is verboten. Swum forbidden rivers cascading from the French Alps. Skied untracked powder where I should not have skied untracked powder. Hopped many a fence for apples, views, trails, or just because I felt I had the right to do so. I’ve generally behaved like a miscreant in pursuit of the liberté that Thomas Paine convinced America’s landed gentry and working poor was worth dying for.
Most of this amounts to breaking petty rules. Don’t swim past the buoys. No bikes in the drive-through lanes at the bank. Back east they used to rope off the in-bounds glades at ski areas. What utter nonsense. Lately, though, I’ve had to put some thought into my lawlessness. How do I instruct my kids on the decrees that are safe—even healthy—to break and the ones that aren’t? Ducking one rope leads to a harmless stash of in-bounds powder. Ducking another rope leads to uncontrolled avalanche terrain and death. Some trails should never be ridden, for the common good. Some leaps can kill you.
I want my children to be free and also to abide by the social contract. Those who would occasionally flout authority must know how to gauge the morality of their actions. For my part, I bastardize Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Most commonly, Kant’s razor goes as follows: if you universalize an action and it continues to hold moral water, then you’re good. Still more commonly, in the voice of my Boston Irish mother: “What if everybody did it? Would it still be OK?” Whack.
Apply Kant to the mass insurrection that has taken place at ski areas over the past 20 years and the outcome is far better than OK. Once upon a time, jumping was off-limits at nearly every ski hill. Ski patrol erected signage and bamboo X’s on lip and knoll. No matter. One delinquent kid skied up and pulled back the signs, and a dozen malefactors sailed off in spread eagles. Now we have terrain parks. When those same kids grew up and fell in love with powder (in-bounds or out), the resorts could no longer contain them with ropes and the threat of prosecution. Today we have laws that demand unfettered backcountry access to our public lands; the backcountry skier assumes the risk. Would a handful of skiers be alive today if the ropes were still up? Probably, but thousands more would have lived their life in a form of bondage—quarantined from the wilderness and the dangers of their own self-reliance. What if everyone did it? Often the chains are broken. What is right wins out over what is merely prescribed.