Liene Vitamante, Venice Skateboarder on Ramp, 2016, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
What percentage of skateboarding, I wonder, is talking about skateboarding? Half, probably. There is such rich joy to be found in these debates without stakes, these endless recollections that go nowhere, slowly. And if the impulse to write grows from the impulse to converse, one could reasonably suggest that writing about skateboarding is a natural extension of the activity, too. But skaters tend to have a cautious relationship with the written word. Our culture has produced an array of photographers and filmmakers and sculptors, so it’s not a lack of work ethic or creative energy that’s kept us from producing poets.
At some point in my early twenties, I decided I wanted to become a novelist. So, I worked very hard to become one. By necessity at first, and then by habit, I viewed most any non-novel writing as a threat to my primary purpose. For my second novel, it seemed obvious that I should write about skateboarding. It proved difficult. I hit a snag, as happens, and then another. By the third snag, which was substantial, I decided to send out an email to friends in the name of research. It was four questions, a brief survey about a basic paradox or conundrum central to our practice: Is skateboarding inherently competitive, I asked, like diving or gymnastics? Is it possible for any of us to treat going skateboarding like going for a stroll in the countryside? Or does something within the activity, some internal characteristic, urge its practitioners toward improvement?
How sweet this all seems now, how endearingly naive to believe I could unspool this mystery so directly. I’ve mentioned that I was an athlete as a young person, an okay baseball player until I quit preseason workouts during my first year of college. I was also a competitive tennis player into my teens, when it became clear that I lacked the psycho-emotional fortitude to handle the game’s total isolation and the funneled pressures thereof. Tennis, in fact, eviscerated me. But before it did, I found it thrilling, as I did boyhood soccer leagues, JV basketball, and Ping-Pong. And video games: Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Mario Kart. Caps. Pool. Darts. I have found great pleasure over the years winning whatever I could win. Losing I have sometimes handled rather unwell. In tennis, this meant broken rackets and high-pitched outbursts I am happy to have forgotten. At some point, for example, my wife stopped playing gin rummy with me.
I am saying that it made a certain sense that I would treat writing as competition, viewing publishing as a scarce and precious resource. But skateboarding, especially after I turned thirty, had mostly remained immune. There may be threads of competition running through any session, either alone or with friends, but they come like shifts in the wind and are minor, fleeting. I think of what the surfer and skater from Malibu who called himself the Illusion had to say in 2011 on Crail Couch, an interview series that mixed Errol Morris with an endless loop of Belle and Sebastian’s “I’m a Cuckoo.” When asked if he ever plays team sports, the Illusion said the following:
So, my whole theory, for like fifteen years, was no balls no nets, man. Like, any time anyone asked me to play tennis, like, nah, I don’t do that. I don’t do anything with a ball or a net. If it’s got a ball or a net, man, that’s just my cosmic sign not to mess with it, man.
People like to point to the early Zephyr Team as proof that competition is endemic to skateboarding (this, after all, is the rhetorical use value of establishing gods). In that half decade between crashing the 1975 Del Mar Nationals and the last of Stecyk’s Dogtown articles, their crew did indeed compete as much with one another as with their gentler colleagues hailing from less mythical neighborhoods. Skateboarding’s time line is pocked with such periods of concentrated progression—on vert ramps in the mid to late eighties, in streets and plazas in the early nineties, and through the handrail and stair-set escalations of the aughts. But the Illusion captures something truer about the way the broader world of skateboarding actually spins.
For a fairly simple activity, skateboarding’s internal code of competition is more nuanced and complex and fluid than any single contest could possibly model. Because the Illusion is a burner from Malibu, he speaks of this nuance in terms of the cosmos. This cosmic side has led to some ironies over the years, like a photo I keep pinned to my bulletin board of a Nike 6.0 hoodie that says “Jocks Suck” across the chest. It is usually pretty clear who to call the best skater at any given session, or among a group of friends. But what looks like victory among pack dogs and, I suppose, salespeople and law students and most other worlds premised on rankings, is among skaters almost wholly irrelevant.
Oh, children will think differently about this. Each of us who’s done the thing long enough has at some point believed in and even worked toward the dream of having our talents recognized as exceptional enough to merit sponsorship by a board company, or fantasized about a lifestyle supported by a shoe deal. Eventually, though, if we keep going, if we commit our lives to the practice, we will come to see how frictionlessly the scale slides, how even the slide is itself sliding. That the collective plural for a given brand’s sponsored skaters remains team is as archaic and absurd as those stand-alone video “parts” lacking a whole. The best term for the nonhierarchical system around which skate performance is judged is one that I am a hundred percent certain the Illusion, whatever he’s doing now, has spoken of at least twice in the last hour. The term is stoke, and we might, for now, leave it at that.
Back to those snags. It was stoke, or some approximation thereof, that I couldn’t translate into my writing. That v of novelist had needled into my old and ugly vein, that tennis player’s lament. I’d begun to worry that I’d made perhaps the most foolish choice possible, committing to a life of isolated performance, or what felt at the time like performance, one novel down and the second expected. Suddenly, there was nothing I was doing that I was not doing wrong. It was not failure I felt but defeat. In merging my two pursuits I’d leaned so desirously far toward the one that I’d lost track of the other. I must have known what was happening when I sent that email off to my friends. I wasn’t conducting a survey, I was asking for a rope, or even just directions back from wherever I’d ended up. I was asking for a map.
Kyle Beachy’s first novel, The Slide, won The Chicago Reader’s Best Book reader’s choice award. His short fiction has appeared in Fanzine, Pank, Hobart, Juked, The Collagist, and elsewhere. His writing on skateboarding has appeared in The Point, The American Reader, The Chicagoan, Free Skateboard Magazine, The Skateboard Mag, Jenkem, Deadspin, and The Classical. He teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago and cohosts the skateboarding podcast Vent City with pro skater Ryan Lay and others. Find him on Twitter @kylebeachy.
Excerpted from the book The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life, by Kyle Beachy. Copyright © 2021 by Kyle Beachy. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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