Saturday, July 30, 2011

Balance IV: 'Base of Support' continued

The nearer an object's centre of gravity is to the middle of the base of support, the more stable the object. Whereas the closer it comes to the margin of the base of support, the less stable it is. If an object's centre of gravity tilts past the edge of the base of support, the object falls over. For this reason, carrying a suitcase in one hand is destabilizing, as it tilts  one's centre of gravity toward one side of the supporting base (in this case, one's legs), closer to the bounds of the base. One way to maintain balance when tilted to one side is through compensation, the intentional leaning in the opposite direction. Thus one carrying a suitcase will typically lean toward the opposite side in order to keep his centre of gravity within the bounds of the base of support.

Another aspect crucial to an object's stability is the height of its centre of gravity. Objects with a lower centre of gravity are more stable than those that are 'top heavy'. If the centre of gravity is very low, an object may even need to be lifted for it to be tipped over. For example, in order to tip over a couch, one actually has to lift its centre of gravity first, for a mere push will only move the couch to another location. In order to tip over a lamp, however, one need only give it a push. Olympic wrestlers know this principle well and use it to their advantage. They keep their centre of gravity as low to the ground as possible in order to make it difficult for their opponent to throw them over and pin them down.

In skateboarding these principles are pervasive. Almost every trick involves the implementation of these principles in some way. Here are a few simple examples:

1. When landing from a high drop the board sometimes 'freezes', sending the skater flying forward. Compensating, by leaning back a little in anticipation of a possible 'freeze' can help one maintain or regain balance.

2. When ollying into a bank or a ramp where one often tips back on landing, it's a good idea to compensate by leaning forward a bit more than usual.  (In both cases, only practice allows one to gauge precisely how much compensation is required.)

3. When landing from a height, such as the completion of an Ollie over a set of stairs (especially when landing in an awkward stance such as fakie, and all the more so switch) , crouching down on landing lowers one's centre of gravity and can dramatically improve stability.            

4. When performing a manual, where one rides only on the back two wheels, the skater usually oscillates between his front and back feet/shoulders in order to balance - a continuous process of compensation.  However, adept skaters can manual without any visible scaling. They've developed the skill of finding near perfect equilibrium between the counterbalancing forces acting on the board: the force applied by their back foot/shoulder on the board's tail, and the force of their front foot/shoulder on the top set of bolts. This type of graceful balance is referred to as static equilibrium, and the oft heard exclamation, 'that's smooth!', well  describes such style...                   

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Balance III: 'Base of Support'

The 'base of support' is the 'platform' upon which an object stands or balances. The size, shape, density, and texture of this base plays an important part in the stability levels of objects supported by it:

Size: a narrow base tends to provide less stability than a wide one. Compare someone standing on a tightrope to one standing on a log.

Shape: take three differently shaped objects with the same amount of area on which to stand: an ordinary chair with four legs, a chair with an inclined seat, and a rocking chair with a rounded base. Each successive chair is more difficult to stand on due to the nature of its shape.  

Density: this is the measure of the compactness of a material. In general, a denser base will offer more support than a sparse one. Compare standing on concrete with standing on a mattress.

Texture: this is the surface of a material as experienced primarily by the sense of touch; chiefly whether it's rough or smooth. Rougher surfaces grip better and thus offer more stable support. For instance, compare the stability one feels standing on grass with standing on smooth ice.             

When skateboarding, there are at least three bases which must be taken into consideration:
a. the surface on which one's skateboard is on (i.e. a narrow metal rail,  a curved wooden ramp, etc);
b. the skateboard itself which supports the skateboarder (i.e. is the grip tape worn down or still coarse);
c. the skater's feet/legs which serve as a base for his 'centre of gravity' located near the navel when one is standing naturally. (i.e. are the legs straight or bent, is the stance wide or narrow, etc).

To be continued...     

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Balance II: 'Centre of Gravity'

In the next few posts I'd like to focus on some of the practical principles involved in maintaining balance while skateboarding. Though I'm relating these principles chiefly to skateboarding, they can be applied to physical activities in general.

1. The 'centre of gravity':

Every object has a point where its entire weight is concentrated; where the weight of the object may be said to act. When dropped, an object will fall toward this point. In a rigid object of homogeneous mass, the centre of gravity is at the geometric centre. But in an object of irregular mass, the centre of gravity will be where the object is weightier, and not at its geometric centre. Obviously, the human body is of irregular mass, that is, each body part has a different composition and weight. Its centre of gravity is thus not at its geometric centre. So where is it? When a person stands upright, his centre of gravity is located near the navel.

However, the human body has an added complexity. It is not rigid and fixed, but keeps changing shape as a person wills himself to move. As a result, its centre of gravity constantly changes location. It will shift when a person raises his arms, and all the more so when he bends over to touch his toes or dives forward off a diving board.

Adept sportspeople learn how to shift their centre of gravity in order to move in a desired manner. This learning process may be conscious or subconscious. Hence, when a sprinter is at the starting block, he'll lean forward so that the centre of gravity is such that it is easy for him to take off, propel himself forward, and begin sprinting with minimal effort and delay. The long jumper learns to mentally project his centre of gravity toward his desired jumping goal, so when he jumps, his body takes on the form that brings his centre of gravity in alignment with his projection point. This allows him to move in the desired direction more effectively.

In skateboarding, every trick requires such a projection. One must imagine where the board is going to move when performing a trick so he can project his centre of gravity in that direction, move with, and subsequently land on the board. Learning this principle has bolstered my skating ability immensely. I discovered that much of my failure to land tricks was due to two things:

a. incorrect trajectory or projection point of the board. Or, more simply, a misjudgement as to where my board would move when flipped or rotated in a certain way;.
b. an inability to project my centre of gravity effectively in the direction of the board's movement.

Having learnt this principle however, I started to keep focus on ascertaining the direction and distance the board would move from its original place - gauged largely through practice - and then concentrated on projecting my centre of gravity toward that spot so that I was more likely to be above the board upon landing.

'Base of support'
Coming up...             


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Balance I

People often associate skateboarding with balance. On seeing me skate, I've heard people exclaim: 'how do you balance on that thing?!' and the like. What's interesting is that they're usually referring to the ability to travel on the board, [as opposed to the performance of tricks] an ability skaters take for granted almost as much as walking. And imagine if someone saw you walking and commented: 'Wow, you've got amazing balance!' You'd probably be surprised since walking doesn't seem to require much balance at all.

A skater becomes consciously aware of balance during tricks that go against gravity: during nose manuals [riding solely on the front two wheels]  or fakie manuals [riding only on the back two wheels while travelling backward]. This is because the slightest imbalance returns all four wheels to the ground or throws the skater off his board. Nonetheless, though unappreciated, balance is essential for both walking and riding a skateboard: police test a person's sobriety by having them walk in a straight line, and non skaters who try to ride a skateboard often fall off immediately. Balance is thus a part of almost every activity, but it's more noticeable when strikingly difficult to maintain.

As a matter of fact, balance is an all pervasive aspect of life. If we enter into atoms, the building blocks of the physical universe, we find the subatomic particles, protons and electrons. Protons have a positive electrical charge, electrons, a negative one. Though Protons are much larger than Electrons, the overall charge between the two is balanced. If imbalance was to occur in the electrical charge of an atom - even as minuscule as 1:1,000,000th - the object in which the imbalance takes place would immediately explode. This includes the device from which you are reading this article; it also includes your brain. Our physical existence thus hinges on a most prodigiously delicate balance.              

From the vantage point of biology, the body is constantly performing an internal balancing act. Scientists call this homeostasis. For instance, the body maintains the right amounts of blood sugar levels by having the Pancreas release the hormones insulin and glucagon. The former serves to lower sugar levels, and the latter, to increase it. The kidneys are constantly gauging the amount of salt in the body in order to assess how much salt or water should be expelled from the body so that the body's water/salt levels remain in the right proportions. The body also has an amazing mechanism to maintain a constant body temperature of approx. 37 degrees Celsius. When excessively hot,the body cools itself down largely by dilating blood vessels near the surface of the skin to allow body heat to escape. It constricts these same vessels in cold weather in order to retain heat.        

Approximately 2400 years ago, the great philosopher, Aristotle, stressed the importance of psychological balance as a path to well being and self-actualization. He asserted that an individual should always seek the ideal balance between opposing psychological qualities: the 'Golden mean', as it is commonly called. Thus one should strike a balance between cowardice and rashness; meekness and assertiveness; kindness and stinginess; spontaneity and self control, etc. An imbalance in any pair of attributes has a detrimental effect on one's personality and function. For instance, excessive rashness tends to result in recklessness and self harm, while excessive cowardice impedes progress. The 'golden mean', however, yields courage: confidence accompanied by a realistic sense of caution.       

Thus at every level of our existence - material, biological, and psychological - balance is critical, even though it is typically overlooked or taken for granted. When performing a nose manual, however, one comes face to face with this most foundational and ubiquitous aspect of the cosmos...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Falling Down III

'A man can fall many times in life, but he's only a failure when he refuses to get up' 
5. The build up adrenalin - Geronimo! - approach:

This is the first level of the heavy duty, fast paced, action packed, cut throat, resolute, hardy, daring, bold, intrepid, hardcore, real mean fighting machine, all consumed, no pain no gain, 'skate or die' - phew! - type of skater. And in all seriousness, his readiness to take severe risks is formidable. 

To even begin to understand how this skater functions, lets explore the basic difference between the pain relief afforded by Aspirin to that of Morphine. Aspirin is understood to reduce the sensation of pain by blocking  'pain signals' from travelling to the brain. Morphine, in contrast, is understood to actually allows pain signals to enter the brain but causes the brain to interpret the incoming signals as being other than those of pain. Of course we all know that Morphine is much more powerful than Aspirin.

Analogously, the brain/mind of this calibre of skater seems to have reinterpreted the nature of pain and injury. He has diminished their significance by seeing them in light of the beauty of successfully landing tricks, being or becoming a proficient skater, winning a competition, or becoming a pro. For this individual, skating is such an important and central aspect of life that success must be attained at all cost. Nothing can stand in the way of success - not even suffering and pain. (Of course there are all sorts of ways that one can re-frame danger and pain, but the underlying principle is largely the same in all cases.)                    

That's the crux of it. Success at skating is exceptionally high on his priority list such that even the prospect of falling and suffering takes a back seat. Nonetheless, this skater is still aware of danger and experiences some degree of fear as he sets out to perform difficult tricks. He therefore psyches himself up, is fortified with adrenalin, prepares himself for battle with an internal war cry, ('Geronimo!' was the war cry of U.S. paratroopers, and 'Just do it' was a Nike catchphrase - each to their own!) mobilizes himself, and sets out to  triumph.               

6. The 'I don't think about how dangerous this is' approach:

This is the consummate level. Consummate meaning two things: a) this is the peak in transcending the prospect of falling; b) the skater is utterly consumed with skateboarding. In essence, this state is really a more complete expression of the previous one. Here, the person is so consumed by growing in skating that his acute focus on his goal automatically blocks out any other possibility. Even the prospect of falling becomes insignificant and may not even enter his mind. All he envisions is the smooth execution of a trick. 

This skater may seem completely calm and causal when performing even the most formidable of stunts. He's at ease largely because there's no struggle taking place within him. No fear to overcome, no 'fight or flight' dissonance. He's single minded, fixated, transcendental; there's only one direction: UP. 

Considering that this state of consciousness is the consummation of the previous level, comparable to one affected by morphine, it makes perfect sense to refer to this type of skating as being 'DOPE!'               

Coming up...
Reactions to falling: 
1. The I'm embarrassed that I fell reaction;
2. The I'm tough that I fell and got back up reaction;
3. The 'this is skating' reaction;
4. The blame and bash the skateboard reaction; and
5. The laugh at oneself reaction.

Falling Down II

'A man can fall many times in life, but he's only a failure when he refuses to get up' 

1. The protective gear approach:

[Note: this category excludes vert skaters who typically wear protective gear for obvious reasons.] 
This individual knows his vulnerable spots and protects them with pads. His knees, elbows, wrists, and head all get covered. Perhaps this person is the most prudent of all skaters, yet, it's clear that he's not the most confident. He's fearful of injuring himself, and fear itself often attracts and precipitates injury. Furthermore, on account of his sensitivity to pain, even minor abrasions can send him off the field onto the sidelines to retire for the day. Typically, skating is not a central aspect of his life but something he does for leisure or occasional fun. He therefore protects himself while skating so that the more important aspects of his life are not affected. 
2. The cautious approach:

This person skates slowly and only attempts low risk manoeuvres. His protection against falling is less conspicuous than those of the previous approach, yet, he still wears 'pads': a 'trick discrimination helmet' and a 'go slow bullet proof vest.' He's also equipped with a high-tech 'safety level gauge.' That is, he attempts tricks in incremental stages: first he'll just ride up to the ledge; then he'll ride up and push his board off the end to see what happens to it; then he'll jump off with his board but without any intention to land on the board,etc...Sometimes he'll proceed to complete the trick, and at other times he'll abort out of fear.   

3. The bail approach:

This is a much gutsier approach than the previous one. The skater attempts riskier tricks and travels fast. Yet he's always ready to quickly jump off his board when he loses confidence or when he feels that he's not fully stable during execution. He may ride up to a set of stairs or a hand rail 20 times only to jump off his board each time just before reaching his destination point. However, more often than not he usually commits to fully landing tricks. 

4. The fall safely approach:

This is the first of the real hardcore categories. This character is not one to bail; he'll continue to try landing on his board even when he's in a precarious situation. His protective mechanism surfaces primarily when he's thrust off his board or when the board simply escapes from under him as he's about to land. He relies on the second before or after impact with the ground to defend himself against injury, and he's a master of his craft. He'll take spill after spill and still continue to get back up. Naturally, he'll frequently injure himself somewhat, at least a graze, ankle twist, or the like.

Lets explore some of his 'fall safe' methods:

a. Always land on you knees:

 This is a method employed primarily by vert skaters. They train themselves to consistently land on their knee pads and to safely slide down the half pipe transition. They often do this on the last second in a manner reminiscent of how a cat, when dropped, manages to turn itself around just before hitting the ground and lands on its feet.   

b. Lower your body closer to the ground:

On landing on the board, especially from a height, many skaters wisely lower their bodies by crouching down. Though this is done chiefly to absorb the impact of landing, it also serves to minimize the distance between the skater and the ground so that if he's hurled off his board he won't have as far to fall.         

c. Remain still:

Some skaters freeze as they fall; their arms flanking their legs as though travelling down a water slide. In part, this technique helps minimize injury by not aggravating the situation. This is analogous to one entrenched in quick sand who finds that the more he moves about to rescue himself the faster he sinks. He thus learns to remain still. It is also comparable to how a crime suspect repeatedly answers 'no comment' to his police interrogators in order to avoid exacerbating his predicament. 

In skating, many injuries occur during a fall, not because of the magnitude of the force on impact, but because the skater instinctively sticks out his hand in order to protect himself and injures it as a result.   

d. tumble roll on the ground if sent flying forward:

It's a known principle of physics that the more gradually a force is absorbed, the easier it is to receive it without injury. For instance, when a cricket player catches a ball, he'll typically draw his hands toward his chest after his hands have already come in contact with the ball. This serves to absorb the force [kinetic energy] of the ball over more time, helping him catch it with less pain than if he'd absorbed the force all at once by rigidly stopping the ball with his hands.

Following a similar principle, Judo and Karate practitioners are taught to slap the floor with their arm (s), when tripped onto their back. As above, this serves to spread the force over more time and thus helps minimize the severity of injury. A skater that falls forward can also absorb the force more gradually by rolling in the direction of one's fall.           

e. Diffuse force of impact to as large a surface area of the body as possible:

 The larger the area of the body receiving the force of impact the less will be the force per unit of surface area. This brings us to another advantage of the 'freeze approach' mentioned above. For the skater tends to absorb the force of impact with his entire body rather than only one part. A specific application is where one who feels he's about to land on his elbow twists slightly to allow his upper arm and shoulder take the brunt of the force. The upper arm has two advantages over the elbow: a) more surface area, and b) better muscle/fat cushioning.     

Coming Up next...  
The high adrenalin - Geronimo!- approach.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Falling Down I

      'A man can fall many times in life, but he's only a failure when he refuses to get up'


Falling down is an inevitable part of skateboarding. If a skater isn't falling down every so often, he probably forgot to put wheels on his skateboard and hasn't been moving. The number of skateboard-slang terms related to falling support this point. Here are a few:       

Knifed - being hit with the sharp front end of a board.
Noggles - a light injury to the private parts.
Bail - the act of jumping off one's board out of fear of falling. 
Schralped -  to remove a few layers of skin from one's body; to graze.
Nutted-  to hurt one's private parts. [Common among skaters who slide down handrails.]
Delam - a chip in the wooden deck of a skateboard due to a fall or crash. 
Sketchy - Someone who lands a trick but is wobbly. 
Slam - a general term for falling off a board and hurting oneself.

What I find most fascinating is how different people deal with the issue of falling. There are many approaches, and each one reflects a specific way that people deal with failure or the possibility of failure in life in general. Here is a list of a few such approaches:

1. The protective gear approach;
2. The slow and cautious approach;
3. The bail approach; 
4. The learn to fall safely approach:
     a. always land on you knees;
     b. lower your body closer to the ground;
     c. remain still;
     d. roll on the ground if sent flying forward;
     e. diffuse impact with surface to as large a surface area of the body as possible;
5. The build up adrenalin - Geronimo! - approach; and
6. The 'I don't think about how dangerous this is' approach;

 There are also common ways that people react to having fallen:
1. The I'm embarrassed that I fell reaction;
2. The I'm tough that I fell and got back up reaction;
3. The 'this is skating' reaction;
4. The blame and bash the skateboard reaction; and
5. The laugh at oneself reaction.

The next few posts will discuss the above ideas in detail.     

Breaking the rules II

We've established the importance of setting clear boundaries between the 'rules' governing individual tricks in order to prevent different tricks from interfering with each other. On the other hand, we've noted the importance of keeping such boundaries flexible enough to allow tricks to be combined to form new ones. How are we to accommodate these clashing interests?

One effective approach lies in the words of a great Chassidic personality who exclaimed: 'one must establish rules in order to break them!' (No, he wasn't a confused anarchist!) He meant that people should train themselves to live according to particular sets of disciplinary rules and programs for spiritual self-development. However, upon succeeding to do so, one should avoid becoming bound by those rules or routines and to perform them out of habit. Rather, one should maintain self-awareness and, when necessary, 'break' the rules in order to cater to the ever changing circumstances of life.

Without rules and a routine, life is unstable and disorienting.  Progress becomes difficult to gauge and one can't see if they are on the right track - after all, without rules there is no track! A routine provides a solid base for life. On the other hand, without change and variation, life becomes dull and monotonous, for the unpredictability and risk of  adventure injects much joy into life. It also allows for progress to occur in leaps and bounds rather than gradual successive steps.          

Cohesion between the two aspects is apparent in Jazz music where a regular beat and rhythm serve as the solid ground from which musicians temporarily depart and adventure through improvisation and extempore play. Analogously, a skater should first learn to perform tricks properly by setting solid boundaries between each trick, as mentioned above. However, once he's trained himself to perform many tricks proficiently, he mustn't become confined by them.

           One must establish boundaries in order to break them: one must skate Jazz.                                 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Breaking the rules I

Each Chess piece has rules governing what it can and can't do. As one considers moving a bishop he recalls the rules relevant to it. Chiefly, that it can only move diagonally, though in all four diagonal directions, and even across the entire board when possible. Upon picking up a pawn, he remembers that it's limited to moving forward, and even then, in most instances, only one space at a time. As one looks at the queen, the details of its versatility come into mind.Every skateboard trick also has its own 'rules' - its technique - that's specific to it. As one perform an Ollie, he recalls the foot placement and sequence of movements necessary for its performance. And, as one performs a varial flip, the details pertaining to it are brought to attention, etc.

If a Chess player draws on the rules for a bishop when moving a pawn, his opponent will quickly protest. In skateboarding, however, the use of the wrong set of rules for a trick is not so conspicuous and can pass unnoticed. This is particularly the case when performing a trick that's similar to another. For instance, a frontside heel flip and a front side varial heel are quite similar. The difference being that in the former one's body turns 180 degrees with the board, while in the latter, it remains facing the same direction. It's possible for a skater to subconsciously confuse the 'rules' of these tricks and to fail landing either one as a result. It is therefore important for a skater to delineate the boundaries of each trick so that they remain separate and do not interfere with one another.

This principle applies to life in general. The 'rules' governing how we relate to objects or people continually changes based on the context. Thus, the 'rules' for handling our personal possessions are not the same for  handling those belonging to others. Similarly, the way we may speak to individuals that are unmarried (unoccupied), significantly differs from how we should relate to those that  are occupied. It's important that we keep the various sets of rules separate from one another so that they do not creep into each others territories.  Throughout my life I've witnessed people get themselves into serious trouble because they unintentionally drew on the wrong set of 'rules' for the occasion.   

However, skating differs from chess. In chess one cannot blend the rules of different pieces to form a new piece. In skateboarding, however, one may combine tricks together to form new ones. Indeed, this fact describes much about how modern day skateboarding evolved. This is also why skateboarding allows for so much creativity. Hence, as much as it's important for a skater to have clear boundaries separating the rules unique to each trick, the boundaries should not be so rigid as to preclude creativity.

However, aren't these mutually exclusive demands: should there be solid divisions between tricks or not?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The 'Authentic' and the 'Poser': Beauty versus Sovereignty

'Poser- (informal) a person who likes to be seen in trendsetting clothes, fashionable bars,... etc'
(Collins English Dictionary)
 'Poser - this is someone who looks like a skater, or who claims to be one, but who doesn't know anything about skating. This term can be pretty hurtful, so don't use it lightly. And it's tough to know if someone truly IS a poser - read Posers Vs Slow Learners for more.' 
( 'Skateboarding slang')

Comparing the two entries cited above we find that the term 'poser', as used by skateboarders, is not specific to skateboard culture. It is a more generic slang term used to describe an individual who 'likes to be seen' as  fashionable, cool, and the like. The operative term being 'seen'. His motivation for doing something is more for the sake of impressing others than his appreciation of the thing per se. The opposite of the 'poser' would be one whose primary motivation is an appreciation of a thing rather than how he appears to others through his connection to it. In short: one who's authentic, genuine, and real.  
Kabbalah discusses two qualities which underpin the essential natures of the poser and the real deal. These are Malchut, sovereignty, and Tiferet, beauty. In a nutshell, Malchut, in its moderate form, is a sense of power/prestige, etc that one draws from others - the 'subjects' - through their recognition, praise, and applause. Tiferet is one's aesthetic sense; one's ability to identify beauty, value, and truth in things.

Let's briefly explore some of the pertinent differences between the two:    

Independence versus Dependence:

A king's power derives from people's submission before him, as there can be no king without a nation. Sovereign power is therefore inherently dependent on things external to the king, and hence, unstable. (When a ruler governs a people who are not subordinate to him, he's not a king but a dictator or tyrant). The withdrawal of his nation's allegiance thus undermines his authority. Analogously, the self-worth of individuals whose need for sovereignty, Malchut, is strong, hinges on social status, praise, and recognition from others. By placing their ‘power’ in the hands of others they are thus forever insecure.

In contrast, a sense of beauty, Tiferet, involves a developed ability to appreciate the appeal, value, purpose, and goodness of objects, including one’s own qualities. Individuals with a well developed sense of taste, Tiferet, are empowered from within, from their own appraisal of their abilities and possessions. Their sense of worth is independent of external factors and is thus stable.

Relative versus Absolute:

One dominated by a striving for Malchut, whose self worth stems from outside himself, tends to compare himself to others in order to gauge his own status and value. Thus, in the company of people he deems inferior to himself, he may feel proud, respectable, and important, but among those he deems superior, he may feel inadequate. Of course the opposite can also be true: among distinguished people, he assumes himself to be important, for why else was he welcomed into their clique? Whereas among a 'lowlier' crowd he views himself to be lowly as well. 

Such a person lives in a realm of relativity. His self-worth forever fluctuates based on who he compares himself too, or who his friends are. In contrast, one governed by his own sense of beauty, Tiferet, perceives his own beauty and value in absolute terms, that is, without comparing himself to others or identifying with particular groups.

Intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation:

One in whom Malchut, sovereignty, is prevalent tends to do things with extrinsic motivation, that is, he's motivated by incentive external to the particular activity at hand. For instance, he may give charity in order to improve his self-image rather than to help the needy; he may study in order to develop a reputation as a great scholar rather than to become wise; or he may be polite to customers in order to secure their business rather than out of genuine respect and care. 

On the other hand, one with heightened Tiferet, beauty, engages in activities inspired by an appreciation of their worth and beauty. His actions are thus intrinsically motivated and sincere.

In summary: 
Don't be a tyrant; don't even desire to be king;
Heed your inner sense of beauty, and your heart will rouse to sing.      

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fire and water: two modes of thought

 JK's manner of instruction reminded me of two modes of thinking discussed in Kabbalah: ‘Hafshata’ (divestment) and ‘halbasha’ (investment).  

Hafshata involves stripping away physical and contextual aspects of an idea in order to grasp its abstract core. It's like a fire consuming an object in its flames, whittling it down to its essence. For example, through hafshata the function of a hand may be reduced to ‘a capacity to hold and/or manipulate objects’. 

In contrast, halbasha entails clothing abstract concepts with specific settings and concrete analogies or examples. Halbasha is like flowing water that takes on the shape of the container into which it is poured. Through halbasha one would illustrate the above concept of ‘a capacity to hold and manipulate objects’ with examples such as a human hand, the brain which grasps and manipulates information, or a computer which stores and processes data. In each case the concept is seen to take on the 'shape' of the example provided.

These modes of thinking are complementary. Through hafshata one distills the kernel of an idea or an object; through halbasha one expresses that kernel in many seemingly disparate phenomena [as in the example of the hand, brain, and computer mentioned above] thereby uncovering the unity underpinning existence. Through hafshata alone, one lives in a rarefied abstract and  detached state of mind. A form of genius, perhaps, but one that the masses cannot relate to; one that is impractical in its nature. It's halbasha that perfects hafshata, by clothing naked abstractions with concrete forms and applying them in practice.

In an anecdote allegedly involving Einstein (though I have no reliable source for it) the capacity for halbasha is poignantly illustrated. After one lecture, a young man asked Einstein to explain the theory of Relativity to him. (I guess he expected Einstein to have ample time to answer him, or more likely, had no idea as to the profundity of the theory.) Einstein asked him whether he's familiar with physics or advanced mathematics, to which the young man answered in the negative. Einstein pondered for a while and then casually said, "When one sits with his girlfriend, an hour may seem like a minute; when one burns his hand, a minute may seem like an hour. That, my friend, is relativity!"         

It is hafshata that allows halbasha, and without halbasha, hafshata is deficient.  

It is this complementary relation between fire and water thinking that I observe in JK's unique style of instruction. In his style, these two naturally opposing elements are harmonized and integrated: fire doesn't evaporate water; water doesn't extinguish fire...                   

Thursday, July 14, 2011

In comes James Kennedy

James Kennedy, or JK as he's called by his friends, is the lead singer of Raph Brous's band. He's in his early twenties, not too tall, thin, with long brown hair reaching his upper back. He stands out at the skate park on account of his dynamism, the speed at which he performs his tricks, his overall 'gutsiness', and the incredible spring in his legs. One of the first times I saw him, he ran up a tree trunk and casually performed a perfect back flip off it just for fun. Since then I've watched him ollie over chairs from flatland, perform tre flips out of a bowl at shoulder height, and execute soaring varial heels over a hip [the point where two banks meet].

From my first impression I attributed his remarkable skating ability to a convergence of light weight, high energy level, explosive muscles, and rashness. However, on closer contact with him I discovered that there's much more to JK and his exceptional skateboarding skills. On one occasion JK noticed me struggling to land a 360 degree ollie. He approached me and told me to put down my skateboard. He then generously spent at least 20 minutes teaching me how to relax more when I skate, how to wind up my body to complete a 360 degree rotation in the air, among other highly helpful tips. In the months following, he kindly approached me in this manner on several occasions and offered me his instructions. He helped me learn to ollie properly, Kickflip, pop shuv it with height, tre flip, 180 ollie on a mini half pipe, nose slide on ledges, varial heel flip, and more. 

JK is an exceptionally considerate and generous person. He has a genuinely warm heart and enjoys helping people. This was made even more apparent when I suffered a gash under my lip and JK went to a cafe in order to procure serviettes to help me contain the bleeding. In terms of his instructional ability, I have never seen or heard clearer and more helpful instructions - and know, I have watched hundreds of trick tip clips on various websites from both amateur and professional skateboarders. 

I believe his advice is high quality for at least two reasons: his kindheartedness and genuine desire to help others brings him to inject much effort,  information, and personal experience into his instructions. It is also due to the nature of his intelligence. He has a sharp capacity for 'abstraction', that is, for stripping away the incidental and even physical elements of skateboarding manoeuvres and to see them as elegant skeletal forms or formulae.

James Kennedy exhibits high quality contributions at the three levels of human function: physical, emotional, and intellectual; body, heart, and mind...                         


Truth and Belief II

A reason why landing a trick for the first time tends to open the floodgates for landing it consistently is that the 'success point' consolidates belief in one's ability to perform the trick. This awakens trust in one's  ability,which, in turn, results in a fuller commitment to land the trick again. Prior to the 'success point', however, one's belief in success was significantly weaker, and hence the trust and commitment levels were inadequate.  

Of course, this isn't saying that if a skater flukes landing a trick in the early stages of learning to execute it that he'll perform it consistently from then on. For since he knows that his success was premature, his belief in his ability will not be significantly reinforced - and rightly so, for a fluke certainly doesn't justify such a belief. Rather, it means that if one has developed his ability to perform a trick over time, gradually edging closer and closer to success, and finally succeeds, he then has solid evidence that he's capable of performing it. He then proceeds to do so with much greater confidence, commitment, and ease than before.

There's an important message here for a skater who is genuinely close to landing a trick yet fails to land it regardless of his number of attempts. If he imagines himself having already landed the trick successfully, thereby strengthening his belief, he can precipitate success in reality. For, as mentioned, trust and commitment, crucial for landing a trick, spring out of firm belief. In practice, this means that one should take time out to imagine oneself performing a trick successfully, even to try to feel the elation that follows success. And only then to re-attempt the trick in practice.       

In summary: whereas an actual 'success point' brings truth to a belief (that is, transforms belief into conviction), bolstering one's belief by imagining oneself already having had a 'success point' allows belief to bring out the truth (an actual 'success point').
               Truth impregnates belief; belief gives birth to truth.             

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Truth and Belief I

The relationship between truth (Emet) and belief (Emunah) can be summarised as follows: belief is the sense that something is true. Hence when one says, ‘I believe you’ they are essentially saying, ‘You are being truthful to me’. Furthermore, belief allows a person to absorb truth within themselves - without belief one either rejects, or remains unaffected, by truth. For instance, suppose someone cautions you to avoid sitting on a particular chair which they claim to be rickety. If you don't believe the statement, it won't influence you, and you'll proceed to sit on the chair regardless. If, however, you do believe it, you'll heed to their advice and will probably avoid the chair or sit on it cautiously.  
There are two steps to uniting truth and belief. The first involves bringing belief to the truth. This means that out of all the ideas or possibilities one could potentially believe in, one comes to believe in the ‘truth’. The second step entails bringing truth into belief; strengthening one’s belief until it becomes unwavering and has the force of certainty. In this way, the belief becomes increasingly ‘true’. It is certainly possible for one to believe in something and still entertain doubts about it, or lack the conviction to act upon it.

When truth is brought into belief, the certainty born has real impact on the world. To illustrate, when Jacob walked upon the water surface of the Jordan River, he said, “With my staff – Mikalti - I crossed this Jordan.” Why was the ‘staff’ mentioned at all? The staff alludes to the quality of truth. The numerical value of the word ‘Mikalti’ (remembering that every Hebrew letter is also a number) equals the numerical value of the word ‘Jacob’, who is the symbol of truth in Kabbalah. Furthermore, using the term ‘staff’ reinforces the stable nature of truth – just as a staff supports a person, truth supports an argument. This verse has thus been interpreted to mean that Jacob’s walk on the water was not a miracle caused by Divine intervention but a natural result of Jacob’s certainty that he could do so.Hence, though we usually see belief as merely a sense of conviction in a truth, belief can actually serve to bring out the truth as well. 

This has important implications for a skateboarder. Based on personal experience, and what I've often observed in others, after a skater manages to land a trick once, he proceeds to land it with relative consistency. This is a peculiar thing. Just before he landed it for his first time he attempted the trick a hundred  times without success, yet suddenly, upon landing it once, he starts landing it uniformly. Why does a single success completely change the skater's ability? Was it merely that he finally discovered the 'trick' behind the performance of the trick, or may other factors be at play?...                  


Skateboard: The Divine Chariot II

'You have created the lower realm to reflect the upper realm...'
The spiritual and material realms are designed to reflect each other so that people may learn about one from the other. This system works in a two directional manner: by studying Kabbalah which describes the spiritual realm one discovers much about material existence. Conversely, everything in the material plane serves as a metaphor, a window, through which the spiritual plane can be better perceived.

From Ezekiel's vision of the spiritual chariot we have learnt about human nature and purpose. Yet, even the ostensibly mundane act of skateboarding reflects the heavenly chariot, albeit in a coarser manner. At the most concrete level, the four sides of the skateboard and the skater on top evince the Chariot. A skater's psyche reflects the chariot as well. In order to progress in the skateboarding craft, one must balance the four human qualities intimated by the faces on the Chariot:

1. Lion: A skater must have the aggression, fearlessness, and hunger to excel. And, like a lion crouching before it pounces on its prey, a skater must learn to crouch down before performing difficult tricks, to access the explosive energy within his legs. He must muster up and channel all his power in order to perform each trick optimally.

2. Ox: A skater must train himself to tolerate the often long and frustrating process of mastering new tricks. Like an ox repeatedly trods around a furrow, he must practice a trick over and over and over again - sometimes hundreds of times - until he finally grasps it and reaps the reward.

3. Eagle: When his approach at mastering a trick fails, one must learn more about the trick by receiving tips from more adept skaters. One should ascend to a higher understanding of a trick rather than attempting his former technique again and again. Alternatively, one must sense when he's unprepared for a certain trick and casually let go of it until he's more proficient and better ready for it, despite the trick being so alluring. Finally, he must refine his technique until he executes tricks smoothly and seamlessly. A trick should appear as one flowing and continuous motion rather than a forced series of steps. He must soar gracefully like an eagle.

4. Human: A skater must have the self awareness that's unique to a human. He should know when he's impatient like a lion, too monotonous like an ox, or when he lacks the lightness of an eagle, etc. And, with that awareness he's free to choose which quality he needs to exercise more or less of in order to improve his game.

A skater that manges this will function at his best, both psychologically and in practice. He will then draw a greater revelation of the 'Infinite Light' upon himself. Meaning, he'll continue advancing rapidly and without limit, and he'll feel at one with his skateboard and the natural world in which he skates...                            

Monday, July 11, 2011

Skateboard: The Divine Chariot I

Ezekiel the prophet experienced the heavens open to reveal a glorious heavenly chariot with faces on each of its four sides. On the right side was the face of a lion, on the left an ox, on the front an eagle, and on the back, a man. Riding atop the chariot was the image of an entire person.

In Kabbalah, Ezekiel's vision is explained in practical terms. The Lion signifies passion and courage, the ability to aggressively and fearlessly pursue goals. In contrast, the ox signifies submission, tolerance, and an ability to carry a heavy burden. Both animals and their parallel human traits express remarkable strength. The ox has been used by farmers throughout the ages to plough fields and to carry bundles. Its strength lies in its ability to carry heavy loads and to endure monotonous exercises such as walking around and around in a furrow. The Lion, on the other hand, lacks tolerance for discomfort but is an incredibly ferocious, dynamic and shrewd hunter. The lion gets what it wants! 

The eagle signifies a lightness of being. The ability to free oneself from the pull of attraction and desire. Its about being psychologically lightweight, agile, and versatile. Its not about struggling but transcending. The eagle's motto: 'Ive got bigger fish to fry!'
Finally, the human face signifies the ability to integrate the preceding three attributes: to be aggressive and dynamic like a lion; to be patient, tolerant, and submissive like an ox; and to be light, free, and casual, like a soaring eagle. The human face signifies this balance because of his free choice and complexity. Animals have specific and rigid natures which they can't modify. Thus an ox cannot behave as a lion, nor a lion as an ox. In contrast, a human can choose to cultivate all sorts of  attributes within himself, even if they initially oppose his nature, and to integrate them into his behaviour. A human can choose to practice the tolerance of an ox, to attack and devour like a lion, or to transcend like the eagle.

The image of a person resting on top of the chariot refers to the manifestation of the Divine presence. The more one harmonizes the various attributes within his psyche, the more Divine presence channels through him. G-d is One. He manifests in unity. Unity is G-d's Chariot.

And now to relate this to skateboarding...


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Growth, Joy, and the Star of David II

 As mentioned, the 'Star of David', the symbol on David's shield, comprises two triangles, one pointing up and another pointing down. The upward pointing triangle signifies earth ascending to heaven, and the one pointing downward signifies heaven descending to earth. In more personal terms, the former represents the human endeavour to improve oneself and to climb to more refined states of being. The latter represents the joy elicited by progress.

In other words: whereas effort comes from the person, joy flows from Heaven.

Of course, G-d can imbue a person with joy without any effort on the person's part. However, such joy would remain impersonal and disassociated from the individual - it would be superficial and thus not real joy. On the other hand, if one strives to progress and feels no joy in response, he loses the motivation to persist. In the ideal state, joy is granted to one who strives to grow and triumphs. For such joy is both associated with one's own accomplishments and also offers incentive for continued advancement. This is signified by the interpenetration of the two triangles - the 'Star of David'.

On the underside of a skateboard are two trucks [metal frames with two wheels on each]. Looking carefully at their shape we discern two triangles. The truck near the tail/bottom end of the skateboard points upward, while the one near the nose/top, points downward. For me, this serves as a reminder of the above mentioned  benefit of skateboarding: it can serve to shield off  - and ultimately conquer - languishment.                     

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Growth, Joy, and the Star of David I

Hebrew for 'joyful' is Sameach, and 'growing' is Tzameach. These two words are near identical except that one begins with the letter Samech and the other, a Tzaddik. However, Kabbalah divides the Hebrew letters into five categories based on the part of the mouth used to articulate them. Here is a list of these 'five faculties of articulation', their technical names in contemporary speech therapy, and examples of letters produced by each of them:

1. Lips [Labial]: B,M
2. Teeth [Dental]: Tz,S
3. Soft Palate [Palatal]: G,K
4. Throat [Pharyngeal]: A,H
5. Tongue [Alveolar]: D,T

Letters pronounced with the same faculty of articulation are considered interchangeable. And since the 'Tz' and the 'S' [the letters that differ in the two words mentioned above] are both Dental letters, they are thus interchangeable. Based on this, the Hebrew words for 'joyful' and 'growing' are veritably the same. This indicates a very strong connection between the two. 

The link between joy and growth is straightforward: when a person grows - progresses - he swells with joy. And there are few greater triggers of joy than the success that follows an effort filled struggle to progress. However, the relationship is actually double sided; joy also effects growth. When one feels dejected or even  unenthusiastic, his ability to advance and grow is diminished. After all, one lacking energy isn't going to put himself fully into the task and is also prone to being defeated by obstacles in his path. He'll sigh and exclaim, "Ich hob nisht ken koyach!" [Yiddish: I don't have the energy!] On the other hand, one who sets out with optimism and joy is significantly more likely to effectively tackle any difficulties that arise and to meet with success.        

In summary: growth fosters joy and joy fosters growth.

But what can be done for a person who has repeatedly failed in many areas of his life, lacks joy, and feels incapable of growing? It's wise for such a person to find an activity in which progress is easily measured, is frequently experienced, and, of course, is readily attainable. This way he'll have regular experiences of growth and the joy that accompanies it. And hopefully this will transfer to other areas of his life, injecting a sense of self efficacy, and the elation that both accompanies it and follows its fruition.   

Skateboarding is an excellent example of such an activity for several reasons:
- the progress experienced is tangible and openly visible;
- there are so many tricks to master of varying levels of difficulty, and one feels growth upon mastering each individual trick;
- it keeps one physically fit and healthy alongside the psychological benefits that it offers;
- it can be practiced at any time of day and almost anywhere;
- one can skate on one's own and is thus not dependent on others to engage in the activity.

In this context, I view my skateboard as a shield that helps me deflect feelings of stagnation and despondency...     


Skateboarding into Wonderland

Central to Einstein's Theory of Relativity is that there's no fixed frame of reference on reality - everything is relative. Thus, from the vantage point of someone throwing a ball Southward while on a train that's travelling North, the ball would seem to be moving toward the South. But from the frame of reference of an observer standing at some distance from the train, watching it whiz by, the ball appears to be travelling North.

Similarly, the faster we travel, the smaller the world appears. If we could travel at super-speed, the world would be no more than a dot, for we'd pass it by so quickly. As we'd gradually slow down, however, the world would appear increasingly larger, until, at the walking pace that we're familiar with, it seems gigantic. 

Thus, though we assume that the world around us is stable, in fact it is constantly changing as our frame of reference shifts. This is beautifully and simply illustrated by Alice's experience in Wonderland where she drinks a potion and rapidly shrinks and then shoots up in size. The same furniture in the room appears enormous when her size is reduced, and tiny when she's enlarged.
I experienced this acutely at Prahran skate park. When I first visited the park, all of its obstacles appeared exceptionally large and intimidating, and the tricks that skaters were performing struck me as incredible. But this was largely due to my poor skill level. Because I was 'small' the park looked 'big'. As I practiced and improved, I gradually saw the skate park shrink in size and the skills of many of the other skaters became significantly less impressive. But there was one incident where the shift was striking.

Raph and I had visited an indoor skate park called 'Ramp It'. A large metal warehouse with different sized ramps and street course obstacles, including a hand rail. Though I'd never board slid [where one slides along a rail perpendicular to it using the wooden underside of the skateboard] along a hand rail before, since the hand rail at 'Ramp It' was quite short and seemed smaller than the one at Prahran, I decided to give it a shot. After many failed attempts - and thank Heaven, without any serious injuries - I succeeded to land the trick. Most surprising was that Raph helped me realize that, contrary to my initial impression, the 'Ramp It' handrail was steeper and higher than the one at Prahran.

On my next visit to Prahran, the park had changed dramatically. In particular, the hand rail which I'd never even thought of attempting, suddenly came within my reach. I started to use the park in a completely new manner and felt as though I had literally increased in size; things were clearly smaller than they used to be.

This encounter has helped me realize that reality is not as fixed as it seems. Every aspect of my life - vocational, spiritual, psychological, etc - is not as permanent as it may appear. If I put effort into improving myself, the mountains blocking my path to success can be reduced to hills, and eventually, to molehills. Though I understood this principle long before I resumed skateboarding, it was skateboarding that allowed me to experience it so lucidly that its become a palpable part of my worldview. Indeed, I have skateboarded into Wonderland...                                            

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A river, a kettle, and a bird: 3 types of peace

Skateboarding culture is quite diversified. A look around a skate park reveals that it is a hub for people of all sorts. There are punk skaters who wear tight jeans, are often covered in tattoos, and play heavy metal; there are skaters who wear baggy jeans and a t-shirt, a cap or beanie, and listen to hip hop/rap. Then there are surfer/skateboarders as well as skaters who wear their pants rolled up in somewhat of a 1950's retro style. What's impressive is that though such groups may not usually mix they share a kinship at the skate park - at least from what I've observed.

A commentary from Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna [18th Century Kabbalah scholar] on the Talmud's list of 3 broad categories of peace helps me better understand the fellowship of the skate park. These types of peace are signified by a river, a kettle, and a bird:

1) River: A river is a symbol of commerce. Two cities trade with one another using the river to transport and exchange goods. The River thus signifies a form of peace based on mutual benefit.

2) Kettle: The kettle combines the opposite elements of fire and water in order to produce something which neither element can produce on its own. It represents a unity forged by a common goal or a common interest.

3) Bird: A bird has two dramatically different abilities: flight and land travel. Unlike the Kettle however, these two components are not brought together to form a bird. Rather, they extend out of one organism. The bird signifies an unconditional unity, where each party contributes to the relationship but the relationship is not contingent upon the contributions.           

These modes of unity can be seen as three progressively higher modes. In this scheme, the river is the lowest mode as it is characterised by self interest. The kettle is higher because the involved parties are focused on a common interest or goal rather than on personal gain. And the bird is the highest, for the unity it signifies is completely unconditional. In the absence of their common interest, parties to a kettle relationship tend to separate, whereas the bird type of unity is eternal.

I'd classify the skate park as a kettle. Skateboarding tends to be such a pronounced, important, and consuming aspect of skaters' lives that it becomes a strong point of convergence for the diverse groups at the park. The differences in lifestyle and manner typifying the different groups significantly dissolve within the skate park.

According to this model, the unity attained via skateboarding seems superior to the river, but inferior to the bird. However, we need not look at the three types of peace as successive levels. Each type can be viewed in isolation and appreciated on its own merits. Hence, surely the harmony of the skate park is wonderful in its own right, and what an incredible improvement there would be in world peace if the entire world was like one large skate park...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lessons from the Globe warehouse III: introjection

In his classic, The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler discusses two strongly related - though opposite - psychological states: projection and introjection. Projection involves transferring one's own feelings or notions onto another person. Thus, if one is feeling angry or hostile one may interpret an other's otherwise benign comments as an attack. Or, one may construe an other's expressed ideas with pre-established ideas of one's own. Introjection, on the other hand,  involves being affected by or mimicking an other's behaviour, feelings, or ideas. For example, when watching a football match, one's own leg may spontaneously kick the air as one keenly observers a striker about to kick the ball toward the goal. Or, one may unknowingly begin to mimic an other's facial expressions or manner of dress. Perhaps introjection is most salient in the contagious nature of laughter and yawning. Upon hearing another laugh, one begins to laugh, and in seeing someone yawning, one tends to yawn as well.

Kabbalah speaks of two psychological qualities through which people interact with their environment. The first is Netzach - dominance, and the second is Hod - surrender. Netzach is characterised by an attempt to get a handle on one's experiences by either physically controlling them, or by projecting one's feelings or thoughts onto them in order to make rapid sense of them. Hod, in contrast, is the ability to open up to one's environment and allow oneself to be influenced by it. In fact, the word Hod is related to the Hebrew 'Hed' meaning 'echo', as it allows one to echo - reflect - one's surroundings. The former thus relates to projection, the latter, introjection.

This notion helped me understand my exhilarating, and more so, empowering, experience at the Globe warehouse that evening. I was in an extremely receptive state primarily because I was in awe of the skills of the skateboarders. I watched them attentively in a Hod state of surrender and was thus susceptible to being permeated with their fearless attitude and fast style of skateboarding. It was the introjection of Hod that allowed me to overflow with their energy to the point that I spontaneously 'echoed' it and skated incomparably better than usual.

I remember a similar degree of  Hod introjection when, as a nine year old, I watched Spider man with the complete openness and gullibility of a typical child. After the film I was so hyped up that I spent some time trying to assail the walls of my home. However, unlike my results at Globe, I wasn't quite so successful...                       

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lessons from the Globe warehouse II

More people arrived at the warehouse. One skater turned up who had a particularly strong impact on me. He's in his twenties, wears an over sized cap, and is quite short and slim. His appearance did not make him stand out, but his skating certainly did. He wasn't the most elegant and stylish skater, nor did he perform highly technical tricks. Yet, whichever tricks he attempted, regardless of their difficulty level and danger, he showed unwavering commitment to landing them. So much so that his feet seemed glued to his skateboard. Even when he failed to maintain his balance, fell, and slid down the ramp's transition on his bottom or back, most of the time his feet remained on his board!

From what I've observed in the past, when a skater loses balance or senses that he won't land a trick he'll typically bail, that is, jump of his board to save himself from injury. This fellow, however, never seemed to retreat; the forces of nature had to tear the board away from under him. This made his skating appear quite precarious and clumsy - though he'd remarkably save himself and stay on his board even when it seemed certain that he was about to slam.

Equally as impressive was the absence of any fear on his face. In place of fear he bore a smile which bordered on a laugh. He appeared to be having the time of his life. And, regardless how heavily he fell, he seemed to get up uninjured, giggle at his fall and ascend to the platform with alacrity in anticipation for his next round.

A ray of his invincibility warmed me up. Uncharacteristically, I impulsively dropped into the ramp on my own skateboard and managed to perform tricks which I never thought I'd be able to carry out. Tricks I imagined to be beyond my skill level. I completely surprised myself and felt exhilarated and supercharged. What on earth was going on?...                                        

Lessons from the Globe warehouse I

Raph invited me to a skateboarding event at the Globe warehouse, a distributor of skateboards and skate gear. He called it a 'skate jam'. After he reassured me that there's nothing untoward at the event, I decided to accompany him. We entered the warehouse located near the Melbourne port district, an industrial area dense with warehouses, factories, and other commercial buildings. There, running across the full length of a self contained section of the warehouse is an extra wide, expertly crafted, wooden half pipe. It comprises three sections of different heights, approx. 5 ft at the lower end and 12ft at the highest with swimming pool tiling adorning its peak.

Three dozen people are standing on the platforms of the ramp watching skaters enter the ramp and execute impressive tricks. A stereo is blasting some heavy music, and some of the people are drinking cans of beer as they watch the skateboarding. Because the ramp is unusually wide, the skaters are building up immense speeds and performing long grinds along the coping (metal piping running along the top edge of a ramp) with an elegant, flowing style reminiscent of surfing.

Both the skaters and the onlookers are highly energized. The skaters are visibly charged with adrenaline, and the observers, vicariously intoxicated by it, are excitedly cheering them on. The energy is so contagious that I feel fortified by the increase of adrenaline pouring into my blood stream. At this point it struck me why people enjoy the experience: the thrill of the 'skate jam' jolts one to life like defibrillators shock the heart back into lively rhythm...                               

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fearing the known; fearing the unknown

 'There is the known and the unknown, and in between...
is fear!?'

The Hebrew word for fear is 'Yirah', and the word for vision is 'Riyah'. Kabbalah points out that these words share the same letters to intimate that fear and vision are strongly related. On the one hand, vision evokes fear, as when a person sees a dangerous animal or imagines a terrible disease. On the other hand, vision may allow one to overcome fear. This relates to why people are more fearful by night than day. At night it's difficult to discern objects and one can easily mistake a small tree for a person and a stain on a wall for a spider. One also feels insecure walking when they can't see what's in front of them. During the day, however, one clearly sees what things are, and walks without fear of stumbling. 

In short: sometimes we're afraid of the known; sometimes, of the unknown.  

When skateboarding, I experience both types of fear. Sometimes my fear stems from seeing how I can injure myself by attempting a dangerous trick. Personally, I heed to the alarm and avoid the trick till I'm better prepared for it. On other occasions, I'm fearful due to not knowing what to expect as I'd never tried the trick before. Here I attempt the trick incrementally. If I see that I can manage it, I progress, if it's too risky, I leave it for later. In other words, I slowly make the unknown known so that I can deal with it appropriately. Most noteworthy is where I feel panicky performing a trick that's not too risky - albeit difficult. This usually occurs when I'm not looking at my board while performing the trick and it remains in the unknown. By keeping my eyes on the board I find that my fear abates, I have more control over myself, and am better able to focus and land the trick. Watching the board while performing a trick has a remarkable effect: my skateboard - as time in general - seems to slow down, allowing me to maintain composure and to better control the manoeuvre.  

 So conquer fear by making the invisible visible; by bringing daylight into the darkness of the night.
Or simply, keep your eyes on the board!   



Sunday, July 3, 2011

The language game

The 20th Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein focused on understanding the nature of language. His thoughts are often divided into two accounts. In his younger years he saw language as reflecting the objects and activities in the world that it refers to. Thus the word 'cat' refers to the physical cat - or the abstract idea of a cat - and 'water' refers to physical water. Successful communication is thus one that corresponds to the world which it seeks to portray. Hence, if one points to a cat and says 'cow' they've failed to use language correctly.

Later in his life Wittgenstein dramatically reviewed his account. He compared language to a game with its own set of rules. For language to work, as any game, people must have agreed upon common rules - be they implicit or explicit - to abide by. If individuals each have their own sets of rules, effective communication becomes impossible, just as one following the rules of tennis is not going to having a meaningful game playing with one following the rules of baseball.   

Both of Wittgenstein's accounts of language are important to communicate effectively with fellow skaters:

a. Skateboard culture has its own vocabulary for skateboarding specific objects and actions. There are hundreds of tricks, each with a particular name; there are words for each component of a skateboard and for the variety of ramps and equipment skated on. Without adequate skateboarding vocabulary it's difficult to speak about skating without long winded descriptions of what one is referring to.
b. Skateboarding also has its own language game, the rules of which must be learnt in order to communicate properly with skaters. For example, when a skater uses the expression 'sick', he's not recommending a visit to the doctor. In skateboarding, 'sick' is similar in meaning to words like 'amazing' or 'cool' - though it has a different emotional flavour which can only be picked up from hearing it expressed by skaters. Similarly, if a skateboarder swears, it's not to be taken as seriously as when a conservative person swears. In skateboard culture swearing is quite normal and casual; in more conservative cultures it may indicate an intensity of feeling that has caused one to break their normal manner.     

There is another profound aspect of language: every language offers a specific view of reality. The words commonly used in a language, the undercurrent of emotion charging words, the manner in which the language describes phenomena, the idioms, the phonetics,etc, all converge to form a lens through which to perceive the world. This is conspicuous in the languages of academic disciplines. Thus, the language of science offers a dramatically different worldview to the language of poetry. But in the same vein, albeit more subtly, Russian offers a different worldview to English or Chinese.

This greatly distinguishes human language from animal language. Animal language is instinctive, an expression of what an animal is; human languages are acquired and significantly influence what a human becomes. In learning the language of skateboarding one does not only improve one's ability to communicate with other skateboarders, one comes to perceive the world through skateboarders eyes...                            


Saturday, July 2, 2011

I hate 'Haters' II

Critics in general play a significant role in an industry. Supposedly, they help maintain the quality of art or work. In a sense, they are the gatekeepers of industries. Haters, however, differ from ordinary critics in several ways:

- Haters tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. Instead of providing a balanced view of someones output, identifying both the advantages and disadvantages, they completely annihilate it.  

- Haters often attack people personally rather than addressing their skills or the quality of their product. For instance, one attack on a brilliant skate tutorial reads: '...Is it just me, or is this guy really ugly?! Of what relevance is an instructor's attractiveness to their ability to teach skateboarding?  

- Haters are unnecessarily vulgar, sarcastic, and derogatory. If one offers critique it should be in order to make - not break - the recipient. Why not speak respectfully and explain how an individual can improve  rather than plainly belittling and humiliating them?  

- If critics preserve the quality of an industry, haters do much to detract from it by creating an unpleasant,  immature, and threatening environment in the skate scene.
- Critics are usually experts in their field, their opinions are respected, often invited, and even payed for. Haters, in contrast, are typically unqualified, come uninvited, and are certainly not employed to contribute their opinions.

 In a nutshell: Haters are not to be confused with critics; they are correctly labelled 'haters'...for all they seem to contribute is hate!


I hate 'haters'! I

'Hater' is a skateboarding term referring to someone who is highly critical. If you visit YouTube and watch a skateboarding trick tip, you'll likely find at least one or two hater comments. Most of these are primitive, vulgar, and childish, yet, on occasion, one may stumble upon some intelligence. Here are a few examples of hater comments cut and pasted directly from YouTube:

- 'this guys a disgrace for tutorials...'
- 'compressing ur legs does not add style, especially off of a one foot curb. u looked stupid...'
- 'every time i see this douche i have to puke'
- 'I love how he probably can't actually do it moving so didn't demonstrate it. Why the [beep!] is a beginner teaching people how to skateboard, it's so lame. Kids, watch any video but this guy's.'

What do people get out of being so critical? I believe they feel power; something more readily attained through destruction than construction. Take the twin towers as an example. While it took 7 years to build the towers (excluding planning and other preliminary stages), it only took a few hours to demolish them! Ironically, however, it seems the destroyers felt more power demolishing the building than the builders felt building it. Perhaps this is because in just two quick strikes a mere handful of them reduced to rubble what laboriously took thousands of workers years to erect.

Their logic is illusory. In reality, the power manifest in the building process utterly dwarfs that of destruction. For instance, the power underpinning construction was sustained for many years; was the result of the co-ordinated input of thousands of professionals; was built against gravitational pull; involved attention to fine detail; and ultimately resulted in something positively useful. In stark contrast, the power involved in destruction was sustained for a comparatively short time; involved much less people; was aided by the force of gravity; required relatively little attention to detail; and has little to show for.    

Haters feel powerful when, with just a few words, they demolish - in their own minds - what took others time and effort to accomplish. In actuality, it's because the hater is infirm that he takes the shortcut to feeling powerful.