In which the author reminisces about skate videos and goes off on a tangent

Ollie by Alan Gelfand, skateboarding’s ur-trick.

Anyone reading this blog can tell that I’ve gotten pretty much sucked into the world of skateboarding once again. When I was a teenager skating the streets and mini ramps of suburban Maryland, there was no such thing as social media. The internet was just being invented. You were lucky to have a friend with a handheld video camera. There were no mobile phones, much less ones with decent cameras. So, apart from a few rough-and-tumble videos which haven’t survived well over the past two decades, and a photograph or two lost in a box of old photos, nothing at all exists to document what was at one time an all-consuming passion of mine.

Which is kind of a shame. One of the things a skater coming back to skating after a long time does is watch all the old skate videos (many of them are now available, at least until they are pulled, on YouTube). Because that’s what we did back then on a rainy day, watch videos and study tricks, making mental notes for the next day. I had a collection of them on VHS cassette: beginning with Powell-Peralta’s Search for Animal Chin and Santa Cruz’s Wheels of Fire and Streets on Fire, Streetstyle in Tempe (a contest video from 1986 which illustrates the light-speed progress street skating made in the next few years; just compare it with Blind’s Video Days a mere five years later), Powell’s Ban This! and Public Domain, H-Street’s Shackle Me Not (that Matt Hensley sequence was my favorite) and Hokus Pokus , all culminating with Plan B’s Questionable in 1992. This last sounded the death knell for many of us at the time, I believe. Watching it again, it seems clear that we recognized that what those guys – Mike Carroll, Pat Duffy, Danny Way, Rodney Mullen, etc… – were doing had gone so far beyond what we could realistically hope to emulate, had become such a terrifying mix of technical prowess and sheer courage, that there was almost no point in trying to keep up with them. Skating had moved beyond us, had left us out in the East Coast cold. Unless you were willing to risk your very life for the lens, you were out. Skateboarding had become – perhaps always had been – a kind of poker. The ante was high, too high, and I folded.

But as any skater will tell you, it’s all about having fun. That’s the main thing, sure, but parallel to having fun is pushing yourself. It’s a kind of evolution, the way nature pushes itself into endless forms and niches. It can’t sit still and just do the same thing forever. Similarly, a skateboarder gets fed up after a while doing the same three tricks. Skateboarders push themselves, and each other, into new realms, new possibilities. That’s how skateboarding went from where it was to where it is, from Tony Alva doing the first air in a pool to Alan Gelfand doing it without hands (the first “ollie”), to Rodney Mullen doing it on flat ground, and then Natas doing it over a trash can. Then it branched out in a million different directions like the tree of evolution, adding infinite variations, to the point where today the ollie is the ur-trick of street skating, a discipline which has essentially cannibalized what was once called “freestyle” and brought its technical virtuosity to places like monster ramps and 30-stair handrails. The world of skateboarding is not for the weak-willed. It is a place where you could crack your skull open for the sake of landing a trick which has never been done.

These thoughts are on my mind as I nurse my most recent injury, a pulled muscle around my rib cage. At 40, you don’t need to attempt to tre flip a double set to get hurt. All you need is one wrong movement, to twist your torso just a touch in the wrong direction, and you are off skating for a few weeks. There is no room any longer to contemplate keeping up with the latest tricks. That is no longer what it’s about (and, as much as it was “all about having fun,” it was also about not falling behind the changing times). Now it really better be about having fun, getting your mind off work and money and car repairs and your in-laws, taking a much-needed break from adulthood. But the tricks, the impulse to push and move beyond where you are, never really goes away. I remember thinking, just a few short weeks ago, “I’ll be happy just to roll around without falling off.” That lasted for about five minutes. By the end of my first session I was already attempting pop shuvits. There’s no getting around it, skating is about moving forward, always and inexorably, from wherever you happen to be at the moment. Like life.

Oh, and I finally began landing the pop shuvits.

Frontside pop shuvit. Landed it! #skateboarding

A video posted by Marc Di Martino (@godlessinitaly) on

More about skateboarding

Makeshift obstacle

Today was the first (partly) sunny day we’ve had around here since I got my new skateboard, plus it was a holiday so I didn’t have to balance a short session with my work schedule. I was out early, around 10 o’clock, at the local park where there is a large flat cement area landmined with countless pebbles. This time I was prepared: I took a broom and got as much of the detritus out of the way as I could. Then I began to ride around and practice my newly (re)acquired tricks: 180 ollies, helipops, pop shuvits, half-cabs… (for those readers with a scarce knowledge of skateboarding tricks and terminology, these are the most basic street moves). I was never good at flip tricks, even when they were new and I spent all day every day trying to land them. This makes me irredeemably old-school, I realize. But I have nothing to prove to anyone this time around.

At a certain point I got bored and rode off down the street – long broom in hand – looking for new terrain. My neighborhood is completely residential, and the residents are not accustomed to the rumbling of skateboard wheels down asphalt, the clicks and pops of skateboards flying up and off curbs, or the look of a solitary man in a hoodie and wool hat making such a ruckus. I found a parking lot strewn with autumn leaves, set to work sweeping them away, and continued my little session. I managed to ollie both up and off the curb, which was a small triumph. I found a street sign on the ground, still wet from the recent rains, and did what comes naturally to a skater: I propped it up on the curb and skated it (see photo). This is exemplary of the art of skateboarding. It really is all about doing the best with what you have. If you have little or nothing, you invent something. When we were young skaters in the Maryland suburbs, that meant building our own ramps (upcoming post on our DIY mini ramps here). It still amazes me what we managed to do at fifteen years of age, essentially left to our own devices and with almost no money. I guess we were just desperate for some fun.

All in all, it was a fine morning. I banged my knee dorking around, which is usually how you bang your knee. On the way home I ollied a manhole. A man helping his son change a bike tire gave me a quizzical look. I ollied as I rolled by (broom still in hand) as I imagined his son, eyes wide, asking him for a skateboard. He would then have to explain why that was the one sport he wouldn’t allow his son to partake in, it was for degenerates and losers and that skateboarders worshipped Satan and took drugs, etc…

Which would probably just make it sound that much more fun.

Talismans

Or whatever you call them. I’ve been hanging on to this small packet of ‘mystery’ objects since 1994, when I received it as a parting gift on the last day of classes at college. It was a painting class, and we were supposed to have a critique of our end-of-the-year projects. The teacher, being an artist, decided not to show up, leaving instructions that we were to critique each others’ work. He also left a box with a bunch of little brown paper packets, instructing each student to take one at random. Inside we were to find what was there and draw whatever conclusions we could from it. Say what you will, it was a memorable gesture.

Inside mine there were the following things:

  • a shark tooth
  • a New York City subway token (remember those?)
  • a dried leaf

IMG_0171.JPGIn the years that immediately followed, I  moved to New York City, dealt with a plethora of dangerous people and – yes – grew up. If I were of the mystical persuasion I’d probably think it was a real talisman. The truth is, I imagine any three objects could be imbued with narrative importance and adapted to any life, especially in the hands of a college art student with a yen for travel.

I’ve managed to keep this gift with me for twenty years, through innumerable addresses in various cities on two continents and assorted upheavals. I’ve never really consciously made a point of conserving it, but somehow there it is in my desk drawer, a quiet reminder of the streets I’ve walked.

So Patti Smith is playing the Vatican

When I first heard the news on Facebook the other day that Patti Smith was going to play the Vatican Christmas concert in Rome on Dec. 13, I thought my friend was just pulling my leg. Since then the news has gone viral. She’s the talk of the town, much as she was when I arrived in NYC in 1995 to see her on the cover of the Village Voice. I’ve loved Patti as much as anyone, I suppose. Her music and her style have influenced me (at least the me of my twenties) more than most. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve really followed her. I began to rethink our relationship after I went to see her at the Auditorium in Rome in 2007. She had draped a Palestinian flag over the stage. I have nothing against the Palestinians, mind you, but I was there for the rock-and-roll, not the politics. But, as my friend retorted, you don’t get Patti without the politics. So be it.

Which brings us to Pope Francis and the Christmas concert. A great many people are enthusiastic to see Patti accept the pope’s invitation. There is even a photo of the two of them greeting each other in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year (staged, no doubt). Patti has always had a strong spiritual streak throughout her work, though she has been quite critical of (organized) religion. Her most cited lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…” might even have pitted her as a papal antagonist. So what’s going on here?

I don’t mean to piss in the Christmas pudding (if that’s the expression), but I’m a bit disappointed in Patti for having accepted this invitation. I’ve been at odds with myself for a day and a half over just why, having had some trouble putting my finger on what irks me. And I’m not sure I’ve figured it out (perhaps I’m just being Grumpy Atheist Guy, who knows?), but I do feel the need to try and put my thoughts down. Especially because I can’t find another atheist blogger who has had anything negative to say about this yet.

I’ve spent quite a lot of blogspace writing about the Catholic Church (see my list of posts Crucifixes and Creationists) and its invasion of Italian life, both public and private. In my view, they are not a jolly bunch of men running around Rome in antique dresses. They are, rather, a powerful, power-hungry and enormously invasive political machine – the oldest institution in the Western world, as they love to say – with retrograde ideas about human well-being and dogmas which are largely incompatible with modern conceptions of human rights. They are also losing ground and numbers in a way which has forced them to reposition themselves in society.

Everyone knows religion depends on follwers to thrive, not unlike social media. In a world which is becoming more and more secular, with more and more Catholics leaving the church, the Catholic Church is in a existential crisis. Sometimes I tune in to Radio Maria, the official Vatican radio station, while I’m in the car. I like to keep up with what they say to their constituent, so to speak. It’s not uncommon to hear them speaking at length about how the Church is focusing on how to reach out to the youth. It even has a name: la Nuova Evangelizzazione (the New Evangelization). I see things like the Patti concert not as an interesting side note on Francis’ musical tastes (“Hey, he likes Patti Smith. Cool!”) but as part of a larger re-make/re-model strategy in the Catholic Church. It’s marketing, plain and simple, and Francis is their cover girl.

I’m a cynic, I know. Why am I attempting to ruin something so benign? If it’s true, as my friend pointed out, that “you don’t get Patti without the politics” then what is her political message now? I can’t imagine she is unaware of how antagonistic the Catholic Church is to the cause of abortion, contraception, euthanasia, secularism, and a host of other problems which are par for the course. Not to mention Francis’ recent involvement in an exorcists’ conference in Rome, and all the superstitious nonsense that entails.

Here is Patti’s unforgettable portrait of Dot Hook:

She’s real Catholic, see. She fingers her cross and she says
Theres one reason. Theres one reason.
You do it my way or I push your face in.
We knee you in the john if you dont get off your get off your mustang Sally…

(“Piss Factory”, 1974)

Perhaps Patti Smith is just another of the millions who want to believe that Pope Francis represents change in the Catholic Church. He has swept aside his unsmiling predecessor Benedict XVI with one of the greatest institutional facelifts in history. But, here in Italy, we haven’t seen much actually change on the ground. Despite Francis’ rhetoric, the Church is still a tax-exempt, multi-billion dollar business. It still clings to its innumerable fiscal privileges. It still insists on preaching to children when they are just barely out of diapers. It is still a greedy, self-serving tinpot kingdom living off the Italian State at the expense of its citizens. For these resons and many others I can’t bring myself to sing “Gloria” at the news of the upcoming concert.

Perhaps “Free Money” would be more appropriate for her new cronies. It’s something they know well.

First ride

skatefeet

My new skateboard came in the mail the other day. It’s an Enuff, a British brand that didn’t even exist when I quit skating 20 years ago. I did the easy thing and ordered a complete board because I couldn’t remember all the components or even be bothered to decide between all the available parts. On their website they have a message about using wood from renewable forests, their boards are considerably cheaper than well-known brands, and so far I can’t even tell the difference.

As soon as I unwrapped the board I began cruising around the kitchen. I was surprised that I didn’t fall immediately. Within hours I was downstairs carving in the parking lot and doing short manuals (riding on the back wheels, if you don’t know). I left work early that evening and hit a spot I’d been eyeing on the way home. Stop for a moment and think about what you just read: A 40 year old man stopped on his way home from work to skate, alone, in the dark after two decades of not having so much as rolled on a skateboard. And what do you think happened? I slammed. Twice.

Slamming is skateboard jargon for falling hard. I had found a nice smooth area to roll around in. As this is a rather pleasurable activity to do fast, I began to go faster. An unseen pebble sent my flying across the pavement: glasses on face, keys and phone in jacket pocket, button-down shirt and all. It was like a slap in the face from my mother. So what did I do? I swept the pebble away with my foot, muttered something about “goddamn pebbles” and got back on the board again.

It felt triumphant, although my elbow hurt. I imagined I might be able to ollie, and after a few tries I think I got off the ground slightly. A man about my age with a large German Shepherd walked up to me and asked if there was a ramp at the local church. I told him I didn’t know, but thought it unlikely. I added that today was my first day skating. “E sai già fare l’ollie!?” (“And you can already ollie!?”) Well, it’s been a while, I added. He mentioned that he had also recently begun skating again. Cool. “Ci vediamo.” “See you around.”

Skater language is always the same. No matter how much Shaksepeare you’ve internalized through years of reading, as soon as you step on a skateboard it’s back to monosyllables. Cool, yeah, right, wow, u-huh. I’m always pleasantly taken aback when I see a skater who can speak well, like Rodney Mullen in his recent TED talks. I guess I have an old prejudice (based in part in personal experience) of skaters as mainly an anti-intellectual crew. This, at least, was the image projected in the 1980s when skateboarding was synonymous with lawlessness, hardcore and Satanism. These Reagan-era memes must have contaminated my mindstream, despite minimal contact with teenage Satanists.

As I was heading towards the car there was a short drop from the sidewalk into the parking lot. Sweaty and self-confident, I ollied lightly off the curb – a routine move. But the parking lot was gravelly and the board stopped dead and sent me stumbling across the asphalt. My body contorted itself in an effort not to fall and scrape my hands, and as a result I got a bruise between my ribs which began to hurt immediately (and still does two days later.) This time I thought, you are a stupid forty year old oaf. Skateboarding is dangerous. You can kill yourself. Even the instructions that came with my new board spell it out clearly: if you are married and have children, choose a different sport.

Then I remembered what drew me to skateboarding in the first place as a restless tween: skateboarders are known for their independence, non-conformity and defiance of authority. Not unlike atheists. No wonder my feet feel so at home on the griptape.

Skateboarding

My friend Pat has started a blog about his return to skateboarding after a hiatus of over 20 years. I met Pat in 1989 when we began going to the same high school together in a suburb of Maryland. We were part of the same skate circle and together we followed all the fashions and developments of skateboarding through the early 90s. We were dedicated to and passionate about the sport. Neither of us were good enough to have imagined a future in skateboarding, though, and when we left for college we put our boards aside and moved on to other things. (I’ve written about my experience here.)

But skating never really left either of us, apparently. I can attest that I have always mentally skated my surroundings. The ex-skater is always silently scanning the landscape for skateable surfaces. There was a time I attempted to bury these tendencies, somewhat embarrassed about their unintellectual nature. But it wasn’t really up to me; the mind, as we know, has a life of its own. It’s not easy to tell yourself what to think about and what to block out. So when Pat began posting videos of himself re-learning to ollie, I took it as carte blanche to dust off the skateboard of my imagination once and for all.

A lot of this involves finding clips of old skate videos on You Tube, videos I used to watch on a daily basis on our VHS player. Trying to remember all the details is a challenge: what boards did I ride? I can only remember the first two: a Mark “Gator” Rogowski was my first board, in 1987. Sometime after that I got a bit more sophisticated and bought a Santa Cruz/SMA Natas Kaupas, the one with the black panther. I still remember the excitement of getting that one. I can’t for the life of me, however, recall any of the other boards I had between 1989 and 1992.

I do recall that the shape of the boards was changing constantly. In fact, the basic shape of a skateboard in 1992 is essentially the same as today: the nose and tail are indistinguishable from one another. There are minor variations, I suppose, but nothing like the variety of shapes one saw in the late 80s. I guess skateboard evolution selected the model which works the best for the most people. Here is a good breakdown of this evolution (via Pinterest)

Skateboard Shape Evolution

Suffice it to say that I have been getting more and more into watching and thinking about skateboarding. I’ve heard that this is a not uncommon phenomenon for those hitting forty, but so be it. Today I ordered a new skateboard online and a I really can’t wait to finally learn tre flips, a trick I could never get down even back when that was all I wanted out of life. Stay tuned for further updates!

Not a Halloween costume

Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable creating text-on-images (and having a lot of addictive fun) my Phonto app went poof. Now the app won’t load a photo. While they fix the glitch I’ve been trying Font Candy, but it’s less intiuitive and automatically puts the Font Candy logo at the bottom of your pictures. That’s lame (I suppose that goes away if you purchase the app). I’m hoping Phonto comes back to life soon, because I have a lot of ideas I can’t wait to try out.

In the meantime, here’s another one from my Toture Museum series. Just in time for Halloween.

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I did a drawing today

I studied painting and sculpture in college and used to be rather passionate about (making) art. I’ve always been passionate about viewing and thinking about it, but it’s been a good long while since I bothered trying to make anything more than a cartoon character for my daughter.

This evening I got the urge to try something a bit different. So I found a painting more or less randomly and decided to make a copy of it. All I had handy were some magic markers and graph paper, but it felt good to swim in the warm waters of impresssionism for a while.

Art is a habit, like writing. If you make time for it regularly, it becomes like second nature. Let it drift for too long and there it goes. You’re lucky if you ever get it back again, too.

The original artist is Elmer Bischoff. I don’t know what this painting is called.

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Red flags

I constantly find myself using the term ‘red flag’ whenever I notice something suspicious. I’m not at all sure many people know what I mean when I say it, though. It’s a skeptical term meaning, “Watch out, there is something fishy here.” Here is an amusing entry from RationalWiki citing some common red flags. I made this today.

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Making memes

When I was in college I was there to study graphic design. When I began to study, however, I realized I wanted nothing to do with the graphic design crowd (and my teacher and I mutually loathed each other) so I opted for “sculpture”, a loosely-defined major which basically included anything you could invent in three spatial dimensions. We sculpture majors looked down our noses at our ad-agency peers. “They aren’t real artists,” we’d scoff. “They just want to get a good job one day.” We still believed real artists lived in broken-down lofts without plumbing and ate ramen noodles for lunch and dinner (black coffee for breakfast, please). This, of course, made them artists.

Of course, I’m no longer eighteen. I have developed an – ahem – appreciation of other forms of creativity that don’t perforce involve splattered paint and vodka. One of them is the internet meme. Meme is an interesting word because most people who use it use it to mean ‘internet meme’, or photos with catchy slogans or witty quotes. Memes, of course, were coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. They are a bit more complex than lolcats, but we can love them both.

I have recently taken to reworking some of my photos via cool apps that make it simple to do. Here’s one I like – made with Phonto – which uses a photo taken at the Museo della Tortura in Montepulciano, Tuscany to make a point I feel is worth stating. I’ll upload some of them here from time to time. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to spread them.

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