The (not so great) helmet debate

Forgive the pun, but this is a no-brainer. It all started with a comment from my ex-stepfather, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to since 1997.

Marc never let the wounds and pains of falls ever stop him from getting back up and skating more. However, now that he and his bones are older I hope he can get a set of pads to wear for protection. Speaking from expierence (sic) having had a head injury from 9 months ago leaving me somewhat disabled I would also suggest a helmet.

Of course I wrote those words off as soon as I read them. My thoughts were something like, I don’t ride vert or jump down stairs, so I don’t need a helmet. Besides, they’re for wussies. And that was – kind of – that.

Until I started paying attention to Josh Katz, who has a semi-popular skateboarding YouTube channel. He’s probably young enough to be my son, but he’s almost the only person on my skadar (skate radar!) who wears a helmet. When I began reading the comments to his videos, I noticed that there were a lot of comments about his helmet:

 (like this one)

Blah blah blah.  Nice helmet pussy.
Probably more attention was being paid to his helmet than to his skating, which is a shame because Josh can backside triple flip over a hip. Sure, he was a minority of essentially one, but what was the big deal? I mean it was obvious that he probably cared enough about himself to err on the side of caution. Which, in a subculture that has always had a strong component of delinquency (Baker, et al.), was kind of like Jonathan Richman singing “I’m Straight” at the height of Haight-Ashbury. It’s a bold move to go nerd. Anyway, the more I read of these comments the more my estimation of Josh and his refusal to be bullied grew. He even made a video responding to his trolls in which he lays out the four most common arguments against helmets: 1) they’re uncomfortable. 2) I don’t care. 3) they’re not cool. 4) you’ll never get sponsored. To which Josh responds:

I’d rather look a little bit goofy wearing a helmet than be a vegetable for the rest of my life.
It’s hard to argue with a line like that. So when Mike Vallely, the biggest street skater who came up when I was a young skater around 1988, dropped his recent part sporting a powder blue helmet, I took notice. Say what you will about the retro skating (looks fun to me), the helmet was a bold move. In his defense – because apparently a helmet must be defended by its wearer – he said something like “I have a family, I have responsibilities to them.” And bang, that was when it hit me. I have a young daughter. Do I really want her to grow up with a brain-damaged parent because of something so stupid as “helmets aren’t cool?” I have a wife and a sister and, hell, I have a brain, without which – or the proper functioning of which – I’m not, well, me. Am I ready to give all that up for a backside ollie?

Of course not. And since I really enjoy skateboarding and have no plans to stop any time soon, I might as well get with the program. I just turned 41, I have a family and run a small business. I’m interested in lots of things, not the least of which is science (difficult to appreciate with a damaged brain). There are so many reasons I can think of to protect my cranium and literally only one against it: it’s not cool, which isn’t even a reason in my book.

Long story short, I got a helmet. And, as if this were all part of some cosmic jest, the first day I wore it I fell backwards and hit my head on the pavement. I wasn’t even trying some gnarly trick, either. I just hit a pebble and went flying. But I was glad I had a helmet at that moment. And it didn’t even feel uncomfortable. It felt, well, kind of cool. Like being smart.


Progress report

Progress report 1: Marriage equality is legal across the fifty states, and I’m excited about that!

Progress report 2: But I’ve also been making my own progress skateboarding. Back in May I passed the six month mark, and noticed I’d been accumulating a lot of clips. Sure, I’d been uploading them to my Instagram account (that’s where I put all my skateboarding-related stuff), but it seemed the time was ripe to, well, commemorate the fact that I’m still skating. After all, there was no guarantee back in November of last year that I’d have kept up with it. Plus, I’m perennially irked by the fact that I have no footage of myself skating from 1987-1993 (other than some poor-quality video in the possession of my friend Pat Eisenhauer.) Not that I’m narcissistic – I’m not at all – but I now realize the importance of keeping personal archives, the kind of thing that never crossed my mind when I was a teenager. I’ll be happy I did this when I’m old and senile.

What I’ve done is arrange a representative selection of clips into a three-minute video. They basically follow chronological order, starting around December 2014 with what I consider my ‘first trick’, a frontside pop shuvit. I learned them before backside pop shuvits, although I now find them harder to do consistently. Progress is a strange thing, and it’s not really linear. I clearly remember thinking – back when I was 15 or so – that I’d never learn another trick, that I’d maxed-out my repertoire. And usually by the end of the session I’d have surprised myself with something new. My philosophy is: just keep at it. Progress will take care of itself.

My hope is that some modicum of progress is visible over the span of the six months or so that I’ve been filming. Not just new tricks, but perhaps something approaching style, or at least not looking like I’m always in danger of falling. As most of what I have available to skate is flatground and a few mellow banks, those make up a disproportionate amount of this video. There is some footage of the Ashland and 28th St. skateparks in Richmond, VA, and a dilapidated skatepark in Campello, Umbria; other than that it’s all street. I wonder what kind of progress I’ll have made by this winter. Hopefully, another amateurish video will be in the works in a few months.

Note: This is my first video and almost all the footage was filmed by placing an iPhone on the ground or on an elevated surface and touching “record”. 

My new setup

IMG_0307As promised, here is my new spring 2015 setup. My deck is an 8.125 from a Naples-based company called Plaza Boards. They’re the only Italian board company that I’ve found, and they have a pretty decent team and a fun beer-is-food ethic. You can watch their team video here. (At 22:30 you can see Pietro Bontà, a Perugia-based skater who has my favorite part in the video.) The scuff marks in the photo are of two days’ – or three hours’ – skating. I’m now riding Independent Grant Taylor 139 hollow trucks (painted a nifty blue and red), 52mm ‘Fatty Loser’ Taste wheels, which are also of Italian provenance, Bones Reds bearings and anonymous griptape.

It was weird at first moving up from a 7.75 inch deck to an 8.125 – it felt so big! Also the wider trucks and larger wheels (the others had been worn down to around 50 mm) take some getting used to all at once. The new setup definitely feels more stable, and my feet no longer hang off the sides, which is a relief. And since I can’t do flip tricks yet anyway I’m not complaining that the wider board is more difficult to flip. As my friend Pat told me, “Adults skate 8-inch boards.” I thought of Rodney Mullen in Rubbish Heap (1989) when Jeremy Klein focuses his freestyle board. Mullen leaps on a street deck and says, “It feels so weird, it’s so big,” but then starts flipping it all over the place like a chopstick.

Here is a short video of me ollieing on a bank at the percorso verde in Perugia. This is the site of the ‘future skatepark’ which has apparently been approved by the local politicos although they are having trouble allocating funds to actually build it. For now it’s a roller rink, and it’s the best thing we’ve got.

My setups

Ever since I got my current setup I’ve been trying to remember the ones I rode back in the day. My very first setup was a Vision “Gator” kaleidoscope model. This was 1987. I have no idea what trucks I had, but I probably had Slimeball wheels and Ugly Stix on that board. My next setup was a black SMA Natas Kaupas with the panther graphic. I was probably riding Independent trucks (we all were), and big, soft wheels of some sort.

This was the era just before the noses began to get longer and wheels began to get smaller and harder. The Natas model was ostensibly a “street” board, but by today’s standards it’s difficult to see how that could be. But we still weren’t doing flip tricks or noseslides.

Unfortunately I can’t remember any of the other decks I rode. I must’ve gone through a bunch of them between 1988 and 1993. Here are a few models I may have owned.

–H-Street Matt Hensley: You can see the shape is already morphing and the nose is getting more foot-friendly. Hensley was my favorite skater around the time of Hokus Pokus (1989).


–New Deal Ed Templeton: Something about this graphic looks very familiar. I loved New Deal in 1990-91.

–Blind Jason Lee Foghorn Leghorn: Or was it the Cat in the Hat model? Who can recall?? Jason was a big influence around the time of Video Days (1991).

–Pure speculation at this point, but I may have had this H-Street Mike Carroll (1991) with the Calvin & Hobbes graphic.

Of course I understand that memory is fallible and I don’t claim to have actually owned any but the first two on this list. It’s all guesswork at this point. It’s frustrating, actually. I wish I had a better memory. I wish I had kept a better archive of my past. All that I have are a few photos and a few minutes of poor quality video a friend has salvaged from his old camcorder from 1991. Thankfully, today things are easier with the internet and smartphones. I can even document my progress by myself so when I’m sixty-four and senility sets in I won’t have to rely on my faulty memory to reminisce about skateboarding in my forties.

This is my first setup, which is about to be retired as soon as the weather improves. It is an Enuff complete, 7.75 with 53mm wheels, Bones Reds bearings and Grizzly griptape.

But why worry about such things as what kind of skateboard you ride? Let’s just say that when you skate you personalize things, from parking blocks to clothes to the board you ride. It all becomes a part of who you are. This has never been so apparent to me as when I discovered I was unable to recall the boards I rode so obsessively in my youth. It’s like a black hole in my memory. For what it’s worth – probably only to me in the end – let me record the present for the sake of the future.

On skateboarding at 40

It’s been a bit over two months since I got my skateboard. It’s been so long I can’t even remember the last board I skated on over 20 years ago. Below is a breakdown of how it’s gone so far: tricks I’ve (re)learned, slams I’ve taken, bucket list for the next few months.

I live in a place where most of what’s available is a smooth piece of pavement to roll around on and the occasional curb to grind (and those are rare enough); consequently, most of my skating is what used to be termed “freestyle”. But that’s alright, because when you haven’t skated in 23 years and your body is getting old the last thing you need is a set of stairs and a handrail to kill yourself on. In the last two months I’ve gotten back much of my repertoire of yore, plus a few new tricks: ollies, 180 ollies fs/bs, fs/bs pop shuvs, fs/bs halfcabs, helipops, fakie bigspins, nollie 180s, no-comply 180s and no-comply shuvs (new!), and most recently I’ve landed a few 360 bs ollies (new!). I’ve also landed a few sketchy kickflips (see above), but not on pavement so they don’t count.

Believe it or not, I’ve only skated curbs a handful of times. The weather has turned horrible and I’m getting out less and less. I’ve done some noseslides and some railslides, but that’s about it. I’m trying to get a friend to help me build a portable grindrail so when the weather gets better I can take it to the local park and get back 50/50s and learn some new tricks like crook grinds.

The first and only time I’ve skated any sort of ramp or transition has been at a local indoor BMX park. It was terrible. All the ramps were covered in dusty Masonite. I slipped trying a manual over the box and hurt my ribs. Definitely not going back there!

I have a few friends who’ve also started skating again recently. We exchange tips and updates over Facebook. They live in places where there are public and private skateparks nearby (in the US), whereas I have nothing of the sort (well, there is this all marble skatepark in Tuscany). The funny thing is, I grew up in a time when skateparks were a rarity where I lived, and we were largely considered outlaws on four wheels. “Skateboarding is not a crime” is a slogan from that era. Today in the US is a golden age for skateparks, and I happen to live in a place resembling the late 80s skate scene of my beginner days. Only now the only skaters I come into contact with are between 6 and 12 years old. They look at me with amazement when I pop a shuvit, and I offer them support on how to tic-tac and jump off a moving board.

It looks like February will be a month of staying indoors and watching skate videos on YouTube, dreaming of the nice weather to come. I have a few tricks I’d like to get soon, though. Other than the obstinate kickflip, I’d like to learn 360 shuvs and bigspins. Another trick I can map out mentally is the late shuv. Once I get kickflips down, tre flips will be next. I just hope this constant pain in my upper legs goes away!

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.

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Frontside pop shuvit. Landed it! #skateboarding

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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.

First ride


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.


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!

Some of the old tricks

I used to play around on ramps like this when I was a tyke. Then gave up skating when I went to college, like so many, and never went back to it. I was even embarrassed by my past as a skater (it was very unintellectual-sounding) for awhile, but I got over that, too. Now I really enjoy checking out what the young’ns are doing these days. They just keep blowing my mind.

Update. Compare with this video, recently salvaged by a friend (and don’t laugh). Play simultaneously for optimum effect: