Skateboarding In Schools? Who Would've Thought!

My commentary today is on another Pioneer Press article, this one written about the incorporation of skateboards into the physical education curriculum. A school has spent over $3000 on boards, helmets and pads for the kids to use to learn skateboarding in class. Educators cite the childhood obesity epidemic and kids’ perceived waning interest in school as reasons to bring something hip and fresh into the classroom. And skateboarding, no doubt, is hip and fresh. It seems that 90’s skate culture and the success of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series of video games has finally wormed its way into the public school system. Skater punks who could be found grinding away on school property after school, despised by the faculty, are now being nurtured by the Man himself.

There’s no question that skating will result in more active kids. As more and more kids become prone to sitting in front of their HDTVs playing Xbox 360 instead of being active and social outdoors, skateboarding at least cracks open the door to a more active lifestyle. A main goal of the program is to introduce an exciting activity that kids can do even when their friends aren’t around. This is good. That being said, I do have some reservations about the program.

First, and probably least in the educators’ minds, is the cost of skateboarding. For any other sport you need a ball. Maybe a racket, net or stick as well. But for skating, you need a board, helmet, kneepads, elbowpads, and wrist guards. That’s not only a lot of equipment to buy , but it’s a lot to store and keep track of when not in use.

Secondly, I don’t know that I like solitary activities being introduced in P.E. Phys. Ed was always about learning to do stuff as a team, fostering cooperation, and learning how to win as well as how to lose. I can’t think of any school sport that is not team based. Even sports like track, cross country, wrestling, and bowling are done in teams. Learning how to work in a team is something that everyone needs to learn how to do, and every minute spent skateboarding is one less spent participating on team.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, skateboarding is a blatant glorification of youth culture. You can skate until a certain age, and then you simply can’t any longer. And that age is usually in your late twenties. Of all the kids in my class who skated in middle and high school, I can’t think of a single one who is still doing it. The Friday night basketball games where men of all ages, from 20 to 60, can play and compete and have fun just aren’t possible with skateboarding. I know, I know, you can say the same thing about football, wrestling, and a bunch of other sports - that older people can’t play them. But at least in those sports older people can still demonstrate skills and techniques, even if they can’t do them at full speed. Coaching is still a very real possibility. I think it would be really hard to do any kind of serious coaching when you yourself can no longer even ollie.

A fourth issue that I will just briefly mention is that skateboarding has traditionally been a very rebellious sort of activity. The whole lifestyle, from board art to skate mags, is loud, rough, and raucous. Maybe this is changing, maybe not. I don’t know. But it is something we should consider or at least look into if we want to teach all kids how to skate.

I hope this program works out. I really do. A lot of money has been invested to the sake of the kids. But caution must be taken when presenting it to them as a viable alternative to traditional sports, because skateboarding is not that. It is an extreme sport, and rightly so. The culture is fast and furious, the rate of injury high, the entry cost significant, and the windows of participation intense and brief. Skateboarding certainly has fared better than rollerblading or BMX riding, but it remains a sport that I think should be undertaken at one’s own risk, and then only out of one’s own curiosity and interest.


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A Wave of Psychologically Distressing Entertainment On The Internet

In the 1930s cultural and literary critic Walter Benjamin penned his observation of mankind”s “self-alienation [having] reached such a degree that it [could] experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” He was referring to destructive practices that we find commonplace today; things like building a full movie set only to blow it up in a stunt. It was waste, pure and simple, but the moviegoers loved it. And because it was profitable, it stayed. Nowadays we don’t think twice about chase scenes in which hundreds of car get totaled - it’s just good cinema!

But I think he was onto something, and I want to take his observation and apply it to a new, disturbing phenomenon that is growing in todays Internet culture. It seems to be everywhere you browse, and thanks in part to the anonymous and unfiltered nature of the Web, is growing quickly. I’m referring here to the trends of scathing satire, celebration of deviance, a pathological focus on negative events, and dark humor. The glamorous trivialization of the depraved human condition that looms over our psychological well-being.

Now the content of this wave is not new per se. Throughout history we have laughed at one another’s misfortunes, enjoyed violence as entertainment, and in general indulged in activities that were not helpful in our development as a loving, caring race. Dead baby jokes are still told. What has changed, however, is the way that this content is distributed, the scope of its reach, and the way in which we as a(n) (internet) culture participate in it.

Before I start listing examples, I want to emphasize that all of the content that I will reference is available for free, online. There is no cost involved other than a computer and an Internet connection. This is a major point, because before the Internet the only way that someone could reach a large audience was to publish in some way or another, whether it be books, magazines, film, or syndication. This not only involved some degree of scrutinizing censorship, but it cost money and, accordingly, consuming it cost a person money. Before indulging in any material, the consumer had to judge whether or not the entertainment he would gain was worth the value of his money. This was an important step that is now bypassed thanks to the Web. Social site-aggregator sites like Reddit.com and Digg.com help to popularize this content, making it easy to find for people who are looking for a quick laugh.

Dark Humor Comics

This genre of comics has exploded in the past couple years, with sites such as garfieldminusgarfield, Perry Bible Fellowship, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and Cyanide and Happiness quickly gaining thousands of subscribers. These comics focus on themes such as depression, isolation, death, mental illness, suicide, often portraying their depiction and satire of real life in the light of extreme irony. They are colorfully drawn, and hide their disturbing content behind the smiling faces of their characters. They provide the reader with his or her daily dose of dark humor derived from the dysfunctional areas of daily life.

Dark Humor Cartoons

These aren’t as popular as they used to be (at least I think so), but they are also along the same lines, in terms of subject material, as the dark humor comics. These animated shorts on sites like HappyTreeFriends.com and Killfrog.com feature slapstick violence way above the level of Tom & Jerry and often surpassing controversial cartoons like South Park. Explosions often result in maiming, dismemberment, and death of small animals or humans. Again, these are cartoons that would never be able to turn a profit on TV or even straight-to-DVD releases and can exist only on the Internet, where teens and college students can watch them and laugh. The YouTube channel of MondoMedia, the creators of Happy Tree Friends (whose videos are too disturbing for me to embed here), has been viewed over seven million times, with their cumulative video view count no doubt in the twenty to thirty million range or higher.


Sometimes people get really drunk and do stupid things. Most of the time those aren’t things you want to talk about, unless you are a “fratire” writer. This is a genre of prose in which the writer is dedicated to getting really drunk and recording every outrageously socially insensitive thing he (they’re almost always male) does (thanks to a tape recorder he takes with him). Thanks to blogging, these writers’ sites become popular destinations for college-aged guys who need a partying role-model of sorts. A guy named Tucker Max, a self-proclaimed asshole, is undoubtedly the most popular writer of this genre, even producing a book entitled I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell. Max knows how to write a funny story, and uses his relationship blunders and drunken sexual escapades as “good” subject material. Fratire is excellent example in which a writer gets famous only because of the nature of the Internet. Tucker is now a prominent New York socialite, though new stories have been added to his site less and less frequently. The aim of these sites, such as TuckerMax.com and SlowChildren-AtPlay.com, is never to educate anyone - only to shock and “impress” the reader.

At-Least-My-Life-Isn’t-That-Bad Sites

Complaining to friends about how life seems unfair at times is something we all do at one time or another. We all need to vent and be comforted. Most of the time these stories of woe are not particularly humorous, but when then are, we laugh at them. And when the Internet comes into the picture, thousands of people can laugh at them. Enter FMyLife.com, a site to which people can upload short stories of how their day went wrong, ending each story with three letters: FML. F*** My Life. A site that people can visit in order to laugh at the misfortunes of others and even rate those unfortunate experiences (“Did the subject deserve it or not?”). A site that, thanks to the anonymity and impulsive nature of the Internet, allows people to publish how their professional lives, personal lives, relational exchanges, and sexual escapades went awry. Each story is meant to evoke a “Haha! I would hate to be that guy!” type of response from the reader. And there are over 2200 of these stories, with about 15 new ones being added every day. It used to be that teen and gossip magazines had a monopoly on these tales of rueful woe - now they’re everywhere.

Another site in the same vein is the aptly-named Complainary.com, which touts itself as a place for people to vent. Not content to merely feature paragraph-length stories, the Complainary actually hosts whole articles and blog entries dedicated to ranting about how much things suck. Very little of the material is even remotely constructive, and Complainary is actively recruiting people to write for the site, clearly trying to push the complain-anonymously-online movement along.

These examples are just a taste of all the distressing content that is out there; a mere drop in the digital bucket. Economics would tell us that the market is just catering to the needs to the consumers, i.e. where the market senses a demand for a service or product, it will create something for the demand to consume. So, in a way, the blame could be placed on the people who supposedly desire this kind of entertainment. The resulting dark humor must be just a passive product of the masses wants and desires. I don’t agree with this, because I don’t believe that traditional economics apply here. The Internet is the first place in human history where people can reach a mass audience for next to free. Consequentially, this allows them to do their own thing and make content that they want to make. The argument becomes, “Because the audience on the Internet is so expansive, if I put out content, surely someone who likes it will find it. They will then tell their friends, and the chain continues.” Thus, someone who makes (subjectively) decent content, like dark humor comics, can effectively create an artificial demand for their service with no risk involved. If they become popular enough, then they can branch out and actually try to make a living off of their site, whether that be by selling advertising space, clothing, or other merchandise that relates to their site. Truly this is entrepreneurship at its finest.

And this is not going away. For perhaps the first time, artists who were told, “You will never make any money drawing those silly comics,” actually can. Being paid for doing what you love is incredibly enticing, and people will flock to this opportunity.

But, nonetheless, I worry about our collective psychological well-being. The rise in depression and isolation in the past several years is brought on, I think in part, by our attachment to our machines. It’s no secret that art is reflective of the time period in which if was created, and as print comics die and webcomics flourish, their gravitation towards the dark themes in life, and our derivation of pleasure from it, is just a natural byproduct of our society. And thanks to the Internet, it proliferates rapidly. And what about fratire, FML, and The Complainary; trends that celebrates human deviance and misfortune? Will they continue to grow?

I certainly hope not.


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Matthew 7:11

11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

April is the month of every year with the highest number of suicides, so be nice to your neighbors. If you have an encouraging word to spare, say it.

Thank you.



I Miss You, Paul Harvey

I’ve been slow to write about it, but radio commentator Paul Harvey died a little over a month ago. Known for his morning news segment on NPR, Paul was a real character who knew not only how to entertain but also how to make issues that seemed not to matter to the forefront of discussion.

NPR and Paul Harvey were, quite literally, the soundtrack to my childhood mornings. That alone probably tells you more about my parents than a full page of text ever could, but whatever. Every day I would wake up at 7am and go downstairs for breakfast, plunking myself down with my bowl of Cheerios and fruit as NPR (Camille Bohannon and Robert Siegel) streamed over the airwaves of Armed Forces Radio. Paul Harvey came on at 7:15, and his Rest Of The Story played around 7:30. After that came the Letterman Top Ten List. Programming like that tells you all you need to know about Armed Forces Radio.

Paul Harvey was a comfort for me - a security blanket. A sense that everything was OK in the world, sometimes. He was also in a way my link to America, and I took cues from him and the news he delivered as representative of the country that with I (at the time) most strongly identified. I heard his voice so much over the course of my elementary years that whenever I read the news now, I can hear Paul’s voice in my head, reading it to me if I so choose.

I will miss him.


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