Our author has had a dream since his youth: he would like to be a real skateboarder. When he visited a Munich skate park with his son, he decided to try it one last time – despite the risk of seriously embarrassing himself.
I stand with one foot above the abyss. As I look down, I see a skeleton. It is climbing up a palm tree, which is being bent back in an apocalyptic firestorm. This is the illustration at the back of my skateboard, on which my entire weight is currently resting; my front foot hovers above the board, nothing underneath that but empty space and, much further below, at the end of a short, steep curve, a smooth and merciless concrete surface. I am scared.
In a lecture given to the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1957, Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques spoke about patients in their mid-thirties who had experienced a depressive period. He had originally focused on why the work of well-known artists such as painters Paul Gauguin, Albrecht Dürer and composer Ludwig van Beethoven virtually collapsed at this age.
I had also noticed the pool – a kind of concrete basin, sunk into the ground, though I had yet to learn that this is actually called a “bowl” in skateboarder talk.
He soon found that in ordinary individuals too, a range of symptoms became apparent that threw them off-course in the perceived middle of their lives: experiences of religious enlightenment, promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, hypochondriac concerns about their health and appearance and obsessive attempts to stay young. He referred to this problem as a “midlife crisis”.
Why is that relevant? I was actually just trying to be a good dad. I had headed over to the sports complex behind HC Wacker with my son, with the plan to shoot a few hoops with him. But in place of the construction machinery that had been parked last time we visited was a shiny new skate park made from freshly poured concrete. My son quickly forgot all about basketball and started watching the helmeted children and ostentatiously helmet-free teenagers zipping noisily over the various obstacles.
“Dad, can we go skateboarding?”
I try to support my kids as best I can in any interest that goes beyond Playstation tutorials. I had also noticed the pool – a kind of concrete basin, sunk into the ground, though I had yet to learn that this is actually called a “bowl” in skateboarder talk. It was a bit quieter there than around the railings and steps that the teenagers were trying to conquer with complicated tricks, and the skateboarders were a bit older.
Two women who looked to be in their mid-twenties were taking turns gliding elegantly around the steep curves. A definitely grown man – I’d say he was around his mid-thirties – hung about the edge of the bowl before casually tilting into a vertical drop and shooting swiftly across the concrete basin.
I try to support my kids as best I can in any interest that goes beyond Playstation tutorials.
Among these adults were also one or two kids who swooshed around the kidney-shaped depression with the utmost ease; I imagined my son spending future afternoons working on his skateboarding. And if the other adults here were having such a great time, why shouldn’t I try it too?
“Of course I’ll take you skateboarding.”
The next time we came to the skate park – my son wearing a helmet and carrying a child’s skateboard under his arm and me, ostentatiously helmet-free, with a “cruiser” which I had been riding to work for a while, to help strengthen the knee I had injured during a failed leap over a much-too-large ski jump – I saw someone I recognised. He was standing with a pram watching his older child, who was skateboarding around between the obstacles. In fact, I didn’t see him so much as he saw me – with a skateboard under my arm – then pointed at me, laughing. I ignored him.
The bowl is also popular with kids on scooters, and we waited a while until it emptied out. My son hesitated. I hesitated. We carefully climbed down and skated very slowly back and forth on the level part. But the moment I skated up just a little bit, onto what is called the transition, i.e. the curve that transitions from the even floor to a vertical wall (though I must admit that the wall in the bowl at the Wacker skate park is far from vertical, just very steep) things quickly got unmanageable.
I would love to tell you at this point that my son mastered the situation more quickly than I did, but in fact his interest passed as quickly as it had arrived. He was – very reasonably! – utterly unimpressed by my performance.
But the moment I skated up just a little bit, onto what is called the transition, things quickly got unmanageable.
But look, it’s important not to put your children under pressure! That’s what I was thinking as I dared to go a few centimetres higher up the wall from time to time.
“Midlife crisis”: that horrible phrase was first uttered by one of my colleagues when I told him, a little proudly, about my efforts. In fact, people at my office had already been acting irritated for a while whenever I put my skateboard down on my desk in the mornings – but evidently my visit to the skate park crossed a line. A father in his mid-forties trying to outdo his child in skateboarding, and keep up with teenagers thirty years his junior? Apparently, it was an open-and-shut case.
I must point out that I had not experienced any depression or religious enlightenment, and I had never found the skate park to be a place of promiscuity. Furthermore, in my experience, most people tend to worry about their health and their appearance from puberty, or at least from the so-called quarter-life crisis, when they suddenly begin cutting out wheat and dairy.
Like every 80s child and teenager who didn’t grow up on a farm in the mountains, I’d had my skateboarding years.
Obsessive attempts to stay young? I didn’t think my attempts were obsessive, but whatever. What did I care? I would simply talk about it less in future and quietly keep practising. In the meantime I had discovered that a friend of mine also went skateboarding regularly with his child; another, who had been really good at skateboarding in his youth, also frequently hung out with the young people in Munich’s skate parks. We arranged to meet up at the weekends. We would laugh together about the small-minded comments from all those people who obviously thought that at our age you shouldn’t learn anything new unless it had something to do with yoga or digital coworking.
And actually, I wasn’t even completely new to skateboarding! Like every 80s child and teenager who didn’t grow up on a farm in the mountains, I’d had my skateboarding years. In a street gang: quite normal back then. It was something between a means of transport and a toy, with the skateboards we used to use looking very similar to the cruiser I sometimes take to work: short, broad boards with plastic protectors screwed onto the underside.
We sometimes tried a few tricks, but mainly we skated around, cruising downhill along a handful of streets in the Munich suburbs. The apex of our experience, in terms of what people think of as skateboarding nowadays, was a “jump ramp”: a ski-jump type structure with a transition, thrown together in someone’s garage.
When I watched the World Skateboarding Championships in Münster as a reporter, at the turn of the millennium, my first short dalliance with skateboarding had long been over. While the skateboarding pioneers in the USA really had practised in empty swimming pools during the 60s and 70s, and later transferred the vertical movement to the first skate parks and half pipes, street skateboarding had since taken over: skateboarders were less reliant on artificial installations and instead took on public, usually urban, spaces to practice their passion.
Skateboarders were less reliant on artificial installations and instead took on public, usually urban, spaces to practice their passion.
It was a technically demanding discipline and street skateboarders had to be prepared to accept injuries when trying, for example, to jump over as many stairs as possible with a complicated trick or slide down a steel railing with multiple changes of direction.
As I watched, I wondered why it was that only young people were able to get very good at the sport, and I concluded that the endless repetition of unvarying patterns of movement in order to master the complexity of the movements required a person to have a great deal of free time, a high pain threshold and a kind of stubborn stupefaction – conditions that simply did not occur in most people once they had become adults. The stars on today’s scene still come from street skateboarding backgrounds.
But in the pool (or the bowl) at the Wacker skate park I suddenly discovered a less perilous, more fluid form of skateboarding that I had completely blanked out, and which reminded me of happy sun-filled afternoons in my youth, scooting across asphalt roads. It also brought back a memory of a moment I experienced many times in my younger years: standing on the edge of one of the mini-ramps that were appearing everywhere at the time – and pulling back.
The endless repetition of unvarying patterns of movement in order to master the complexity of the movements required a person to have a great deal of free time, a high pain threshold and a kind of stubborn stupefaction – conditions that simply did not occur in most people once they had become adults.
Perhaps if I were treated for it today it would be referred to as trauma, or perhaps it speaks to a self-preservation instinct that emerged early; in any case, being unable to do the trick move known as “coping” convinced me that I would never be a real skateboarder. And as I tentatively explored the Wacker bowl it suddenly dawned on me that rolling along on the flat and carefully inching up the wall was not the way to start my second-wind skateboarding career as the grandfather of the bowl: I had to take a decisive step and quite literally take a leap into the unknown. My goal was a “drop-in” – moving from the coping at the top of the ramp into a swift descent.
But why would I actually put myself through this again? If you’re more interested in why a midlife crisis happens than in skateboarding, Pamela Druckerman’s “There Are No Grown-ups – A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story” summarises it well. Incidentally, the book was translated into German under a somewhat bizarre title: “Vierzig werden à la parisienne: Hommage ans Erwachsensein” which literally means “Turning forty à la parisienne: an homage to adulthood”.
In principle, I like being a grown-up, even if it comes with crises. And of course there is a special Munich angle on this topic too, with Helmut Dietl’s “Monaco Franze” immediately coming to mind. This character’s midlife crisis, if it can be called that, is centred mainly on the symptom of promiscuity. At the start of the miniseries the “eternal dandy” protagonist, Helmut Fischer, was 57 years old.
I would bring my adulthood to bear to confront this challenge on the edge of the abyss, but I would approach the matter more quietly, in a less tempestuous manner. As Monaco Franze would say: Ein bisserl was geht immer! (A little something is always possible!)
I am as far from that age as I am from my mid-thirties – the age Jaques indicated as typical for a midlife crisis. In any case, I decided to concentrate on whichever aspect of a crisis might be positive, whether or not people perceive it as such. I would bring my adulthood to bear to confront this challenge on the edge of the abyss, but I would approach the matter more quietly, in a less tempestuous manner. As Monaco Franze would say: Ein bisserl was geht immer! (A little something is always possible!)
With the calmness of my middle years, my composure and my life experience; I would approach slowly and cautiously, skating higher and higher until it almost happened of its own accord at some point, completely free of stress. I would work up to it in small steps, training like a runner constantly moving towards their target distance.
I warmed up in the street area, and once I had gently been around the flat bit a few times, I was soon feeling brave enough to skate the slopes. I even skated down the mini-transition, a gentle slope on the other side of the bowl, used for teaching and practice – a bit wobbly, not deep enough in the knees, but it was ok.
But it has to be done sometime, whatever the consequences. Weight forward; drop in; it’s there in the name.
But I really wanted to experience that special moment: I wanted to be brave enough to try skating down the damn wall. The laughably low wall. On the one hand, I really wanted that. On the other hand, I could all-too-clearly picture myself crashing into the flat at the bottom. I could handle the shame of it, but knowing I could be left crippled for weeks or months by some crazy injury was pretty off-putting.
You can be as careful as you like, take it as slowly as you can imagine (besides the fact that you can’t be spending two or three hours a day hanging around a sports ground as an adult), but it has to be done sometime, whatever the consequences. Weight forward; drop in; it’s there in the name.
One last step before I could do it was buying a proper skateboard. I walked into the SantoLoco skate shop in the city centre and was immediately approached by a young salesman, who clearly intended to help me pick out a skateboard for my child. In the ensuing conversation I learned that the challenge I was working up to is no longer called “pool skating”: once the sales assistant realised that I actually wanted to buy the board for myself, I still had to explain my intentions more fully and it took some time for me to be understood.
“Ah, you mean a bowl,” he said eventually, passing me the board adorned with skeletons that looked like they were from some medieval drawing of a Dance of Death, a rolling omen of mortality.
And yes, I am scared. It is not mortal fear, but it is genuine fear.
One of the geniuses to have a creative crisis as explored in Elliott Jaques’ mid-60s essay, “Death and the midlife crisis”, was Dante, and it was his words from the “Divine Comedy” I found myself unavoidably remembering:
“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
And now I’m standing here, with my foot over the abyss. Of course I’ve wanted to do this a few times, but I always found an excuse to put it off: the wrong day, a bad night’s sleep, some reason I wasn’t quite fit – something hurt. And yes, I am scared. It is not mortal fear, but it is genuine fear.
I am standing here, on my new skateboard with skeletons on it, and I am running out of excuses.
I worry about more than just the foreseeable consequences of acting too hesitantly – i.e. that I will not throw myself fully enough into the movement and the board will slip away beneath my feet, leaving me to land literally on my arse – in fact I am concerned that, with that exact scenario in mind, I will over-anticipate and throw myself too far forward, smashing shoulder-first into the concrete.
I am standing here, on my new skateboard with skeletons on it, and I am running out of excuses. My son isn’t even with me – it seems he has lost faith that anything is ever going to happen here, and he’s gone back to preferring basketball.
And then I suddenly stop with all the thinking. Perhaps it is the pent-up impatience, without which I’ll be stuck forever, that gives me the push: I just want to get it over with. You can keep building up to a moment, but at some point it has to arrive. Or not. That is also the beauty of it.
I am almost relieved to land on my rear: the shoulders are safe, at least. And the spell is broken: the second time I stand on the level, in the centre, atop the giant little skateboard and this time it somehow throws me down onto my side. I climb back up. On my fifth go I manage to stay on my feet: I throw my arms up in the air like an Olympic champion! It is so ridiculous. And feels so good.
Since then my visits to the Wacker park have got less frequent, but I still go now and again – I don’t want to leave it so long that I get scared. I still have some respect for the fear though; sometimes more, sometimes less. Some days it goes great, and other days I’m too laid back. When that happens I have to force myself to concentrate, to take it seriously.
What I know above all is that it is not over – because I am about as far from the grace of the experienced skateboarders doing tricks in the bowl as an out-of-shape yoga newbie is from performing a scorpion handstand.
I have managed it from almost every position, and I haven’t fallen once. What I know above all is that it is not over – because I am about as far from the grace of the experienced skateboarders doing tricks in the bowl as an out-of-shape yoga newbie is from performing a scorpion handstand. I can’t use my drop-in swing for anything, as I do not dare to ride the momentum into the steep counter-curve.
But I can just keep at it now. I want to explore the skate parks in Munich – there are over 30 and the only one I have been to so far is relatively small. I have yet to discover the large Flow Park in Gefilde, the scary walls of the bowl in Trudering, or the skate park at Hirschgarten park, which even has a crazy full pipe where you can – theoretically – do a full loop-the-loop on your skateboard.
In fact there is a much closer challenge that still awaits me: at one point the Wacker bowl is a whole thirty centimetres higher. I have stood at that point many times, but I’ve always pulled back – just like I did so often before that first time. But the summer is young, and the next crisis is probably on its way.