There is a very creative, savvy and intelligent guy by the name of Roman Mars, he hosts an incredible podcast called “99 Percent Invisible”. The podcast is essentially about design and architecture but I would not slap such a myopic kind of label on it. The show’s real beauty lies in the wonderful way it draws attention to all the brilliance hiding in plain sight before our eyes.
I recently listened to an episode entitled: the “Pool and the stream” and it describes, among other things: skateboarders, swimming pools and the work of a Finnish architect named Alvar Aalto. This episode as always draws attention to the beauty of the world around us but this time it also draws out our own beauty as well. Let’s take a short dip into the pool with some skaters and find that there is a metaphor waiting in the deep end.
If you wanted to, you could categorize skateboarding as a demographic or even a sect rather than as a sport or a hobby. For many skaters, it can truly be a lifestyle, an attitude, a way of looking at the world. For instance Avery Trufelman, producer for 99 Percent Invisible puts it this way: “…skateboarders appreciate the small details of architecture more than anyone. They recognize the quality of concrete, the grain of wood, the incline of a structure. They recognize the way a landscape flows.” We see steps or a sidewalk, or a ramp, but skateboarders see a challenge or even a medley of actions to be choreographed into a fluid performance, not unlike the gymnasts or figure skaters would plan one of their routines.
Skateboarding started out as fad back in the 60’s and by today’s standards, the boards back then may as well have been made of granite; we are talking stone-age here. The wheels were metal and did not make for a smooth ride at all and the board itself was minuscule. The skateboard was saved from oblivion and denied the fate of the hoola-hoop, slap bracelet and fidget spinner when some surfer kids from Venice Beach Ca. in the early 70’s needed an outlet on days that they couldn’t surf. The story goes that they used old skateboards that belonged to an older sibling and later made their own out of planks of wood and roller skate wheels. They would just ride around on them despite a limited array of terrain and tricks.
The urethane wheel changed everything for skaters when it came along. These wheels provided a smoother ride, better traction and better absorption of the bumps in the ground. You did not need perfectly smooth blacktop to enjoy riding a skateboard anymore. It was a renascence not just for the skateboard but for the streets as well.
A massive drought in Southern California provided for another frontier in skateboarding- the swimming pool. With water at a premium, these large empty pools were left fallow like a bunch of bean-shaped craters. Along came skaters who were eager to see what they could do with the smoothed slopes and curves of these drained pools. What they found was that they could go fast, defy gravity and gracefully navigate pool walls like they were actual waves. Eventually, skaters were shooting out of the pool’s slants and getting lofted higher and higher into the air. They started learning to do tricks and land safely and then go back up again.
This series of events -surfer kids in L.A. looking for something to do on land even remotely like surfing to the production of the urethane wheel to the drought to discovering this nearly endless bastion of strangely and perfectly shaped pools to skate in bridged the gap from a fad to modern day skating and perhaps the genre of extreme sports. This was a process, a string of improbable events and phases that led it to become what it is today.
Skateboarding is a growth and an evolution and -if you care to think about it this way- is no different than our lives. Our lives are a journey, leading from one point to the next, impacted by outside influences and our ability to understand and reconcile them. Skaters can find almost exquisite beauty in the mundane and interpret it with flair and style-why can’t we? Each end can become a beautiful bridge into the next beginning.
A Finnish architect named Alvar Aalto
“Architecture and its details are in some way all part of biology. Perhaps they are, for instance, like some big salmon or trout. They are not born fully grown; they are not even born in the sea or water where they normally live. They are born hundreds of miles away from their home grounds, where the rivers narrow to tiny streams. Just as it takes time for a speck of fish spawn to mature into a fully-grown fish, so we need time for everything that develops and crystallizes in our world of ideas.”
These are the words of that Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto. Read them again if you need to… aren’t they beautiful? It is his design that perhaps influenced all those bean-shaped pools so beloved by skateboarders. His pool concept is where ideas really crystallized for them.
Where and when will our ideas crystallize? Maybe we need jump into life to find out or we could just be satisfied with getting our toes wet.
This podcast has a great message but it is underscored in this case by the show’s creator, Roman Mars. I described him as creative, savvy and intelligent but it turns out he also realizes that he is still growing and still incomplete. Mars was completing his Ph.D. in genetics when he realized that he wanted more than to have a doctorate. Mars shared in an interview that he wanted to be challenged and inspired each day and in new ways other than analyzing the genetic constructs of corn.
I am sure there are radio hosts who leave their jobs to become geneticists too. Jobs, situations, locations, friends all change. If we’re more holistic about ourselves we’ll see that we are more than what we happen to do for a living or what we did last week or even ten years ago.
I ask myself this question each day: “Who do you think you are?”. It’s not because I am unsure of how I am living, I do it to make sure that I am living.