Decline or stagnation? What's the word for what our country, our culture, our civilization is undergoing? Ross Douthat’s...
Skateboarding with Jordan Peterson—and Nietzsche
“Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding.”
That is Rule 11 in Jordan Peterson’s bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson explores how skateboarding is a way for boys to test danger and learn to deal with risk and pain, and as such is a valuable source of socialization and psychic health. To Peterson, the buzzkills who clamp down on skateboard riders suffer from acute resentment; they are bitter at the freedom, bravery, and style of the riders: “Beneath the production of rules stopping the skateboarders from doing highly skilled, courageous and dangerous things, I see the operation of an insidious and profoundly anti-human spirit.”
To drive the point home, Peterson offers this humdinger of a quote from Nietzsche:
For that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms. The tarantulas, of course, would have it otherwise. “What justice means to us is precisely that the world be filled with the storms of our revenge”—thus they speak to each other. “We shall wreak vengeance and abuse on all whose equals we are not”—thus do the tarantula-hearts vow. “And ‘will to equality’ shall henceforth be the name for virtue; and against all that has power we want to raise our clamor!” You preachers of equality, the tyrannomania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883)
I would adapt Peterson’s rule only slightly: “Do Not Bother Children or Adults When They Are Skateboarding.”
Along with jazz, movies, modern dance, and comic books, skateboarding is one of America’s great original art forms. A $5 billion industry with 16 million members in the United States, skateboarding fosters entrepreneurship, independence, physical grace and toughness, community, creativity, and freedom. The sport has been a friend to me for almost fifty years, reappearing at various times over the decades to thrill and re-enchant. When it was recently reported that a California skate park was filled with sand to prevent skating and promote social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, it felt to me like someone had spray-painted on the Lincoln Memorial.
I was six years old and living in Maryland in 1970 when a young Virginia Tech student named Frank Nasworthy visited a plastics factory called Creative Urethane in Purcellville, Virginia. The factory produced a polyurethane roller skate wheel that was sold to Roller Sports Inc., which supplied wheels for rental skates at roller rinks. Skateboards had typically been manufactured with either steel or clay wheels.
As journalist Rich Rossin Jr. explains in a well-researched 2018 article that appeared in the Juneau County Star-Times, skateboarding had experienced a boom in the mid-1960s, with companies like Hobi and Makahah touring teams of young riders to promote the sport, and Jan and Dean enjoying a hit song called “Sidewalk Surfing” in 1964. In 1965 the Quarterly Skateboarder magazine was published and the first ever Skateboard Championships were held in Anaheim in July of that year. Interest soon faded, however, caused by the limits of primitive wheels and warnings from safety experts that skateboarding was dangerous.
In 1971, Frank Nasworthy moved to Southern California with his polyurethane wheels. Using $700 he earned working in a restaurant, Nasworthy formed the Cadillac Wheels Company. Nasworthy’s invention was a phenomenon: he was soon selling 300,000 sets of wheels per year. Fausto Vitello, the cofounder of the skateboarding magazine Thrasher, once explained what made urethane so good for wheels: “Urethane has some unique properties. The first is that it has really good abrasion resistance, which means that the wheel will last a while. The second one, even more important, is that urethane gives a really good grip with the ground. It will slide if you push it hard, but it gives great traction. So that means you can control your board. And the last is that modern urethanes have a real high resiliency, or rebound, which means that although the wheels have no pneumatic tube or anything (they’re solid), they’re still able to be very fast.”
By the time I was twelve years old, in 1976, skateboarding had made its way from California across America and become huge. In his Star-Times memoir, Rossin Jr. notes that in the 1970s “a skateboard became almost required equipment for any city dwelling teen.” In Maryland, my friends and I begged our parents to take us to the Sunshine House, a surf shop in Maryland that sold surfboards, skateboards, and accessories. We’d gaze on the candy-apple-red-shimmy row of Cadillac Wheels and marvel at the photographs in Skateboarder. Fiberflex by Gordon and Smith, Logan Earth Ski, great California brands like Alva, Tracker, and Sims. I still remember one photograph of a skater whose wheels had caught on fire—surely a staged shot, I now realize, but to me as a kid it was a blazing representation of everything that was cool: speed, grace, and daring. We grew up on our boards, bombing hills and surfing into driveways in Maryland.
In her recent book The Problem with Everything, Meghan Daum, like me a member of Generation X, recalls that, unlike the psychological hypochondria of today’s woke students, kids raised in the 1970s prided ourselves on our toughness. Bruises and bandages were signs of honor. Skateboarding taught us to get up when we fell, as well as to live in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. It’s illegal for dogs to be off a leash? Sounds good, but it’s only sporadically the case when you’re actually riding. Government is supposed to keep streets well paved and clear of debris? Sure, but we’ll see when we actually are out there. If you took a spill a couple miles from home, you just had to hump it back with a bloody knee.
Skateboarding saw another huge development in 1978, with the invention of the ollie. A skater named Alan Gelfand discovered that by leaping while on his board and sliding his front foot forward, he could get airborne for a second. This soon developed into other tricks that are signatures of modern skateboarding: heelflip, kickflip, caballerial, grind, noseslide, railslide. I’m a pre-ollie skater—as well as a goofy-foot who rides with his right foot forward—and I don’t know any tricks. I consider the skateboarding eras like jazz: pre-ollie hill riders are big band swing; post-ollie park riders are bebop. My board is a Carver, which was launched in 1996 and features a patented truck design that swivels at the front. Invented by Greg Falk and Neil Carver in Venice, California, Carvers are closely tied to the surfing culture—just like the original boards I rode in the 1970s. (Falk and Carver’s business story of trial-and-error and how persistence finally paid off could be taught at Wharton, by the way.)
The ollie was born just as the popularity of 1970s skateboarding started to flag. Kids who had grown up with the sport went to high school and then college in the 1980s, and, like my friends and I, they got interested in other things. Injuries and insurance liabilities also helped end the second wave of skateboarding. In 1978, Norway actually banned skateboarding, a prohibition that lasted more than ten years. It would be easy for conservatives and Jordan Peterson to cite the prohibition as an example of a socialistic government acting as a killjoy, but the statistics were startling: in 1977 in Norway, 28 kids were killed and 100,000 injured. “The Environment Ministry said protecting children is more important than letting big business make money,” according to United Press International’s Oslo bureau. Skateboarder published its last edition in July 1980. By the time I went to college in 1983, most skate parks in the country had closed.
Still, so many millions of skateboarders had accumulated over the decade that boards would occasionally turn up and be put to use. I was a waiter at a restaurant in upper Georgetown in the 1980s, and the way back to the house I shared with three other guys was down a long hill that was at about a 45-degree angle. I was always self-conscious walking home late at night with hundreds of dollars of tips stuffed into my pockets. Then a skateboard appeared from some long-forgotten source—I’m guessing someone left it behind at one of our parties. My trip back from work went from fifteen nervous minutes in the dark to a thirty-second glide from door to door. More recently, in 2008, I had a cancer scare, and during that time I found a skateboard that had been discarded by the side of the road. As an antidote to the chemical yuck of chemotherapy and the trauma of a near-death experience, I rode. The fact that I shaved my head when my hair began to fall out and wore a bandanna to soak up sweat made me feel more like a warrior and less like a victim when I rocketed through the streets. When I missed a turn or ate it on a wet spot, I instantly did what I had learned to do as a kid: I got back up.
I also newly appreciated the spiritual power of skateboarding, the beautiful Zen awareness it can ignite in its riders. In a 2015 essay in Buddha Weekly, rider Sonic Mike recounts how when he returned to skateboarding as an adult and forgot tricks in favor of just riding, he had a spiritual breakthrough. While simply riding home, he found himself in the moment: “That was the familiar feeling I couldn’t quite figure out at first, but without question I had reached an altered state of awareness. I didn’t recognize the feeling at first because it came in an unfamiliar way—through motion and balance—rather than sitting still and focusing on my breathing. It was an amazing realization for me: I didn’t need to be sitting quietly and force myself; simply rolling along and paying attention to the world around me brought the experience of awareness.”
Skateboarding’s modern age dates to 1995, with the first “Extreme Games” competition in Rhode Island. The event included skateboarding, bungee jumping, Rollerblading, mountain biking, and sky surfing. A Washington Post columnist snorted that “apparently—and it’s possible I’m misinterpreting a cultural trend here—if you strap your best friend to the hood of a ’72 Ford Falcon, drive it over a cliff, juggle three babies and a chainsaw on the way down and land safely while performing a handstand, they’ll tape it, show it and call it a new sport.” He was rebuked by a writer at Time magazine: “Well, yes, actually, he did misinterpret the Games’ cultural significance—namely, that they came at a moment when a good chunk of young people were getting a little bored with football and baseball, while even more were on skateboards practicing their Ollies in mall parking lots across the country.” Mainstream companies like Nike and Adidas begin marketing made-for-skating shoes. Today the sport is mainstream and worth billions in annual sales.
And what about the critics, those “tarantula hearts” spoken of by Nietzsche? They’re still out there, though their numbers these days are few, at least in terms of skateboarding. I’m not talking about the security guards who are just doing their jobs, like the guy who apologetically kicked me out of a lush country retreat center after watching me bomb the long and glorious front driveway. I speak of the killjoys who are full of resentment and have always been part of humanity. The ones who hate seeing people have any fun. Conservatives in the 1950s were afraid of things like sex and dancing (and skateboarding); today they’ve been replaced by the liberal ban-soda brigade who shut down speech and take bitter exception to grace and a free spirit.
One of my favorite streets to ride on feeds out on both ends to major routes into and out of Washington, D.C., and the different reactions I get there tells a story. The laborers, electricians, lawn-maintenance guys, and plumbers active during the day all cheer me on and sometimes stop me to enthusiastically talk history and board specs. A lot of them brag about their own riding back in the day. Not long ago, one of them in a white van called after me as I did a cutback in front of him. He asked if my board was running on a battery, and I said no and headed downhill, hearing him shout behind me: “Old school, man! Old school!” On that same street during rush hour, when the bureaucrats are going back and forth from the city, I’ll occasionally get a dirty look or a brief lecture about speed. In their bumptious tone and Dolores Umbridge disapproval, it’s obvious that they are either government workers, lawyers, or journalists—maybe all three. I let them talk, then watch them pass. I’ve achieved awareness.
Mark Judge is the author of Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship and God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling.
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