Friday, April 22, 2016

Genealogy of thought - Skateboarding

I cannot discuss the formation of my worldview without talking about skateboarding. This might seem like a strange thing to say. After all, I am speaking about an activity that involves rolling around on a wooden toy. However, the fact that I am still skateboarding as I near age forty bears witness to the importance it has had in my life. This idle pursuit has formed me as an individual in many ways.

As I look back, I can’t quite pin down the moment that I realized that I didn’t really fit in. From an early age I was a very happy, well-adjusted child that got along well with everyone. I had a vivid imagination and loved to read and write. This led to a lot of favorable treatment from teachers, but as I got older it brought about a certain amount of scorn from my peers. Also for whatever reason, I always found myself in closest kinship with other kids that didn’t really fit into the mainstream very well. I suppose that my gift and my burden has been to be a fan of the underdog in most situations.

What does this have to do with skateboarding? As it turns out, quite a bit. You see, I tried to go with the typical young male route of acceptance through physical prowess, particularly in sports. I was a pretty good basketball and volleyball player, having experienced a fairly early growth spurt in height. But much to my chagrin, I also happened to attend middle and high schools that prided themselves on turning out sports champions. I found that I had neither the talent nor the desire to excel at even the baseline level for my hometown. Not to mention, I had a pretty big issue with jocks and the alpha male mentality that pervaded the jock culture. So I was doomed, it seemed, to nerd-dom and obscurity.

This was until skateboarding came along. I had actually begun skateboarding much earlier, in the mid-80’s heyday of the sport when I was about eight years old or so. But I never took it very seriously, and for the most part just rolled around on my driveway when I got bored of doing other things. My sophomore year in high school, however, I discovered skateboarding all over again. I happened to start flipping through a skate magazine at my orthodontist’s office while waiting for an appointment. What I found in those pages changed the course of my life.

This was the early 90’s, and skateboarding was going through a serious transitional moment in its history. The glory days of the 80’s, with neon-clad half-pipe contests and prime-time media exposure, were coming to a close. Skateboarding was moving back to its birthplace in the streets, and its subversive nature was being highlighted in more subtle ways. This transition also led to an explosion of creativity among the vanguards of the movement that spilled over into visual arts, music, and more. I was instantly captivated by what seemed to be an all-encompassing lifestyle, and exercise in personal freedom and carefree expression. This was as far from the jock realms of “sport” as anything could be.

But more than anything else, skateboarding changed the way that I looked at the world.

You see, in street skateboarding, the entire built environment is there to be exploited for purposes of movement and expression. Street skaters grind on ledges and curbs, ollie down sets of stairs, and carve surf-like turns on concrete banks. Just as skaters in the 70’s turned empty pools into never-breaking waves, street skaters find purpose in things that were never intended to facilitate skateboarding.

This approach changes the way you look at everything. I found that my vision of reality had been forever altered. The smallest details became apparent, hidden in plain sight among the monotonous suburban landscapes. The telltale signs of waxed curbs (for easier sliding) stood out like hobo signs or tribal boundary markers. They spoke a language to those willing and able to read it, and created a sense of invisible community even when no one else was around. You knew that this was a legitimate skate spot, and that others of your tribe had been there before. The blinders of normalcy fell from my eyes like scales, and I found myself deep in the study of curb cuts and slight concrete inclines that flashed by the bus window on the way to school.

The culture that surrounded skateboarding also provided me with a place to call home. In the pages of skate magazines and in skate videos, I found like-minded weirdos with incredible taste in music. I was inspired by the art of  brilliant, creative folks such as Mark Gonzales and Neil Blender. I first learned about existentialist philosophy from reading an interview with Rodney Mullen. The aesthetic touched every corner of life. It was about the actual act of skateboarding first, but it was also about so much more than that.

Little did I realize it then, but this gift of vision that skateboarding gave me would not go away. Even more, it would adapt, in time, to a way of seeing not just places but people also, a keen eye for the ignored and the forgotten ones who remained invisible to the eyes of the comfortable and conventional. I call this a blessing and a curse, because like all great gifts it brought with it a great sense of responsibility. Once exposed, I could never be the same.

I recently had the privilege of writing an article for the Luchaskate zine where I tried to explain the connection, for me, between skateboarding and religion. This might seem like an odd and possibly mutually exclusive pairing, but for me they have been complimentary threads that have woven themselves together continually in my life. You could say that my theology has been deeply influenced by skateboarding, probably more so than theology influencing skateboarding. This angle of vision, this desire to see the hidden and tiny things, has never left. Through the pain and pleasure and ridiculousness of it all, I cannot imagine life without it. 

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