Friday, January 24, 2014

The Dirtiest Words In Skateboarding, Part 1: Progression

When I was in my early twenties, back in a time when skaters still had to contend with the question of “how old do you have to be before you have to quit skating?” my best friend answered the question by asserting that he would “never quit” as long as he was “...having fun and progressing...”

I was always cool with half of that answer, but why quit when you are having fun, even if you are not progressing? His succinct answer all those years ago gets to the root of an identity crisis that plagues skateboarding even more today, and it’s all wrapped up in that one word: progression.

My lack of talent and general sensibilities make me a pretty egalitarian guy when it comes to riding, I’m not sure I’m comfortable, even in this age of cruiser trendiness and longboard ubiquity, with making distinctions between “true” skaters, and whatever else the rest may be. Ultimately, we’re all skaters, but being equal doesn’t mean we’re all the same. Writing a journal article on quantum physics and writing a sonnet in Iambic pentameter are both writing, but they are not the same thing. This is why, in other human endeavors, we create new language to distinguish between even the most subtly different of things. The skateboarding community has yet to develop a really good language for its increasingly diversifying facets. Right now, with the space between skating’s different genres becoming so broad, skaters, at least those with their hearts and minds in the right place, are struggling with how to talk about what they do and how to differentiate their own identities as skateboarders from that of others without stepping on the increasingly sensitive hamburger toes of their peers.

Yes, we are all skaters, and ,yes, it is ok to do all sorts of things on whatever length, or width or brand of board you choose, but we need a good way to articulate our differences, and this is where personal identity and an ideal of egalitarianism slam into the limitations of language the same way a hell-bent teenager riding out of a handrail trick might slam into a soul bro pintail cruiser at the skatepark.

The word “progressive” has been taken up by some as a go-to filtering term. Like all problematic words, it is both incredibly flawed in its connotations, and incredibly accurate in its actual menaing. Like any other hot button term, The slapfights and arguments the words “progression” and “progressive” incite have less to do with what someone means when they actually use it, and more to do with the baggage people attach to it. Either way, the word progression, in all its contexts, is a messy dangerous group of syllables to throw around when talking about skate culture.

For some, that word “progression” sets off all sorts of alarm bells. It points to the feared “jock mentality”, and memories of wedgies in the locker room and lonely times being last on line for kickball at recess. “Progression” has “nothing to do with being a ‘real’ skater”, some will quickly say, defending the art from notions of competition, exclusivity, and anxiety. But the notion of progression, like it or not, is what sets a certain kind of skater apart from the bro with a board for who uses it for beer runs and beach lurking, or the fashionista who wobbles around on the penny board they bought at urban outfitters. Anyone who asserts that progression is not integral to the very nature of several very important subsets of skating, is either deluding themselves, or, more likely, taking a fatally narrow view of what that word really means when applied to the shred sled we all love so much.

"let us join your groovy gang!"
Granted, “progression” is a word that lends itself to misinterpretation. When interpreted as a very personal, wholly subjective phenomenon, all but the crustiest of old soul anarchists can see progression as an integral part of what they do, even if what they do is nothing more than a new boneless variation or a longer slappy on a jankier curb. Progression is a word whose application can be as idiosyncratic as the clothes someone wears or how they set up their board. However you apply it, progression is a demarcation line that separates those who pursue skateboarding from dabblers who see the board as an amusing novelty or form of transportation.

Personally, I prefer the term expressive when describing how folks like me or folks who inspire me, ride a skateboard. Of course, this term has its own problems, but I think, generally, it has a less judgmental connotation. Riding expressively is really what separates the core from the cruisers in whatever genre of skating you might consider. “Trick” based skating, whether those tricks are lazer flips or half-block long downhill Bertelmans, is about manipulating a board with wheels in an artistic way, a manner influenced by your own personality. In other words, its expressive.

Then again, even expression is inextricably bound to this problematic idea of “progression”. Any person who creates in any medium is ultimately driven by progression. It’s why writers don’t write the same story over and over again word for word, or why painters can paint the same haystack 20 times and make it look different on every canvas. Expression is only half about communication, it’s also about new experiences, and new experiences don’t happen without a progressive mindset. Progression is not about moving beyond those around you, its not about never doing the same trick twice, its not about constantly inventing new moves and throwing away things you like, it’s about new experiences; The same words in different sentences, same colors, new paintings. Unless you are a dilettante, (and maybe even if you are) these things define a subset of skateboarding, and these things can rightly be called “progression”. Progress is not a dirty word, so stop being afraid of calling it like it is, and start realizing progression is at the heart of why some of us love skateboarding. It is not wrong or offensive to anyone to acknowledge that. 

Progression goes wrong when it creates a culture that values throwing things away as much as it values innovation. This ethos actually creates a culture incapable of maximum progression and expression. It creates a narrow orthodoxy that eventually destroys itself. This cancerous mutation is why the word progression scares so many skaters, not just because, as years increase and skate time decreases many of us fear we cant keep up with new innovations, but because we’ve seen what havoc this faux-progressivism can wreak on our culture. Skaters always throw out tried and true ideas in favor of radical leaps of innovation, and always end up re-discovering and re-innovating them later, always with regrets for forgetting about them in the first place. This idiotic cycle repeats again and again as predictably as the culture’s boom or bust economics. In fact, it is integrally intertwined with that boom and bust cycle, a cycle that is hopefully a thing of the past. Whether it is a broad philosophical notion like style, an entire genre (like Vert), or most often, individual tricks, skate culture needs to acknowledge that being a progressive skateboarder is never about arbitrarily NOT doing things.

The main point here, is don’t jerk your probably-shot knees in a narrow reaction over the words “progress” and “progressive”. Anyone who rides with me can tell you I am not a competitive skateboarder, nor am I driven by having the biggest or most advanced bag of tricks. Nevertheless, in my own way, I am fanatically progressive, and I can’t enjoy any form of skating that doesn’t embrace this. I do a lot of slappies, but when I do one I want the next one to be longer, or on a bigger curb, or maybe in the middle of a line. I pursue the maneuvers I do with fervor, and obsessively pound away at new ones I think I can pick up until they are not just made, but made repeatedly. Put me on a longboard, and, after 2 minutes I want to pop its tail. I want to wiggle in and out of imaginary pockets in quick carves, not wide, patient arcs. I’m just not enthralled by long straight shots down the sidewalk and high speed, unidirectional drag stripping down hills. I resent the insinuation that I am not having as much fun as the guy in full pads riding a  $400, 42 inch sector nine set up because I want to devote my time on a board to doing “tricks”.

On the other hand, when a guy like Fernando Yuppie gets down on a longboard and starts to slide, he’s completely dialed into what makes me love to ride a skateboard, no matter how big his wheelbase is. For me, it has to be about more than going somewhere fast, or just going somewhere.

“Progressive skateboarding” really is too loaded an expression to effectively articulate the difference between diffferent styles of riding with the necessary nuance. On the other hand, when someone throws the term out there, I give them the benefit of the doubt until they elaborate and say something moronic. Expressive skateboarding suits me better. Still vague, still wholly subjective, but it draws a more direct line between riding a skateboard and using it in creative, and divergent ways, and it is much less combative.

Why bother with all this semantic exploration in the first place? Why worry about this possibly reductive sorting and filing and classifying? Well, because I like to talk about skateboarding, and because there is enough difference between various elements of skate culture that those differences warrant articulation. There’s nothing inherently judgmental in that. Only attitudes and careless mistakes of language can create that. That’s why hearing that term “progressive skateboarding” sent my brain spinning on these tangents, it makes me think about how much skaters need to separate the insinuations from their terminology, or at least be more careful about them. It’s not about what you ride or where you ride, but where your mind is when you ride. That is a distinction worth making, and that is the distinction people are trying to make when they use terms like “progressive”.

But there’s an even bigger problem underlying the whole factionalization conversation. People who want to talk about diversity and acceptance in skateboarding, or any other endeavor for that matter, often make the assumption that a respect of diversity is synonymous with seamless unity; that not only do we have to accept other ways of doing things, but appreciate them all equally as well. This is horse shit. It’s where otherwise admirable defenders of tolerance cross the righteous line of “respect the differences of others” and into the ironic fascism of “if you aren’t into this, AND this, you’re a nazi.” There is a vision out there of the scabby, truck-eroding, trick based skaters linking hands with the squatting, motorcycle helmeted, 50 mph longboard hill bombers and the mandal clad novelty boarders, and all of them rolling off into the sunset in a rainbow utopia super session. This ain’t gonna happen. Stop telling me it has to. It’s a vision that isn’t just unnecessary, but actually antithetical to the concept of diversity. Diversity is driven by differences. The diversity that has organically developed in skating over time means that there are many, many, subsets of the monolithic thing we now call skateboarding, so many, in fact, that all the various genres are so different that some have nothing in common with each other outside of a board with wheels attached, and even that commonality is often stretched to the breaking point. Respect is ideal, but universal participation, or even appreciation, is unfeasible, made so by the very diversity the grand unifiers purport to champion.

The kind of skateboarding I enjoy, that fulfills me, bears about as much resemblance to what the downhill racing fanatics do as it does to cycle racing or soapbox derby. I acknowledge the validity of these other riders as skateboarders, I am happy they are out there doing their own thing. I have no right to invalidate them or call them “kooks” because they have no interest in ollieing manhole covers. Conversely, no one has the right to assume I don’t “get it” or that I am a “brainwashed jock”, because I’m not interested in building a “quiver” of a dozen different boards. (This goes double if you are also selling those boards). Likewise, no one has any right to claim I'm not “progressive” because my board isn’t shaped exactly like the ibuprofen caplets I have to take after every session.

The concept of progression is a valid thing to embrace when it come to an identity in skateboarding, but it must be applied with caution in all conversations. A longboarder who obsesses over squeezing another tenth of a second off their downhill run time is definitely focused on progression. The mandal jockey who uses his cruiser to get to sigma chi a few minutes faster isn’t. This is why the differences matter, no matter what the utopians say, and why skaters need to figure out how to better talk about all the different things we do without missing the forest for the kooks.  


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