The Deep Seams

A Search for Fun in David Foster Wallace's Peoria
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This essay is excerpted from a longer piece of the same name, which appears in its entirety in issue 1 of The Chicagoan magazine, a publication we recommend to anyone within or without that city.

"The new beautiful freaks will teach us all how to play again." – Richard Neville

Picture a child. She's kindergarten-aged, somewhere between five and seven years old, and we find her outdoors during recess playing with a group of classmates across a rubber-matted playground. It could be a boy, too. It's the 1980s. Imagine the playground is built from metal and wood and there's a sandbox running along one edge. He's playing A-Team or G.I. Joe or Voltron – the game isn't important – and chasing and cutting the playground's corners. She hurtles bad guys and crouches under bullets, drops from the bouncing bridge, over the lava pit, frantic in escape, and just then I remember my teacher standing there with arms crossed. I remember looking at her, seeing her watch me, and knowing that, though she was physically nearby, she existed in some realm outside the boundaries of our play. And I recall the terrible and brand new sensation of knowing I look stupid, here, pretending like this, at which exact moment the fun of the game ceased.

The term kindergarten translates from the German for "children's garden." Kindergartens are a 19th century idea from a man named Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, whose concept of "free work," or freiarbeit, posited the game as both a basis of childish life and a tool for learning. This of course aligns nicely with our lingering notions of gardens as loci of knowledge that cannot be forgotten.

In June of this past year I decided to drive to a city that represented, for me, the end of fun. I can explain both this representation and my desire to visit by pointing vaguely in the direction of a certain book set in Peoria, which is not a novel and definitely not a memoir, but is, everyone agrees, about boredom. I had written one review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and read a thousand others because they were everywhere. I also knew the state's seventh-largest city was only a few hours from Chicago. Summer was sluggish to begin, and for far too long I'd been frozen. I needed to see how it was to play in Peoria.

Even among those who are most invested in the activity, there exists little agreement about how skateboarding should be classified. Is it sport or hobby? Is it dance? Or is the ludic space seized by the activity, its ample "room for improvisation and unique personal style," most befitting, as longtime editor of Slap magazine Mark Whitely has argued, jazz?

I'm happiest thinking of skateboarding as a prize America awarded itself after World War II. Like the hula-hoop and yo-yo, the skateboard sneezed into popularity in the Sixties and, like them, quickly disappeared as the decade came to a close. Though it's in this window of skateboarding's relative absence from American culture, the first in what would become a roughly 10-year cycle of popularity, that the interesting developments begin. Because it survived. Those who did it were outcasts, yes, but such banishment from the mainstream provides a kind of permission for deeper transgressions, and theirs snowballed into disdain for mainstream peers and authorities. They skated and they destroyed, assuming during the downtime the role of freaks and assholes.

For the past decade, the nauseating experience of seeing skateboarding swell to a 2.5-billion dollar industry has been tempered by the fun of watching major corporations cautiously advance and retreat, uncertain whether the beast has truly been pacified. The nausea, though, can be debilitating. Celebrity crossovers and MTV specials. The death of unspoken traditions, values, and codes; rise of competitors with Olympic ambitions. Rad Dads who coach their boys into richly sponsored competitions with real-time scoring. Ambition, period.

It's tempting to view these changes in terms of loss, like the moment when Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" became a Carnival Cruise jingle. Any trend's true victim is he who claims – or sadder, denies – proprietorship. Such advancements are also completely expected in our economy. Organic, even.

***

Like many in the Midwest, Peoria is a river city, approached by way of a cantilever bridge with trusses that make whipping sounds through rolled-down windows.  Moving slowly and, admittedly, not without creep factor through downtown at 11:50 a.m. on a Tuesday leaves expectations largely unviolated. I see exiled smokers clustered fifteen legal feet away from building doorways, women wearing either long skirts or short pants, men in pleats regardless, shirts tucked neatly and credentials swinging on necklaced lanyards or flapping from belt clips. Parking is reasonably priced and ample, as are window signs for available office space. I see unsurprising construction along the riverfront, pairs of women who can only be mother and daughter, dressed in perfect echo, the elder's figure and posture a pair of promises for what the younger will become, un-gated railroad crossings, a Kelly Seed and Hardware and Mark Twain Hotel, and the kind of regular, unabashed obesity that seems neither selfish nor particularly shameful, but rather evidence of a general and ambient acceptance of the joys and consequences of consumption, and an orange-awning'd Hooters with unobstructed river views.

It was only by way of a twentieth-century combination of figurative language and hyperbole that "fun," which before then claimed usage strictly as a noun, crossed into common parlance as an adjective roughly equivalent to "good." But of course all fun isn't good, a fact of which Wallace constantly reminded his readers. Candy, liquor, and treats lack nutrients. Worse still are forms of entertainment that encase their empty calories within a shell of pure fun, maximizing revenues by indulging base desires. Like one of Barthes' mythologies, Wallace's work confronts habitual American fun with the goal of exposing, and in fact undoing, the figurative- hyperbolic semantic link between fun and good, too easily exploited by advertisers, corporations, and entertainers.

My immediate goal is Glen Oak Park, which I am relatively certain contains the smaller of Peoria's two skateparks. The photos of the park I had found were not promising, but that doesn't feel like the point. The point is activity: come, engage, participate, and enjoy. The point is fun. During my fifth lap around the park's one-way traffic loop, I'm ready to accept that I'm in the wrong place. The reality of having to pull alongside a police cruiser to request directions to a skatepark represents an irony I note with a round of mild interior applause that itself twines the muddled line between ironic and sincere.

***

Depending on where you are, the modern skate park serves one of two very different functions. In rural and outer-suburban zones, they are seen as a kind of gift, providing opportunities for movement not otherwise available. Within the explicit confines of the park, and especially as compared to the vast unskateable terrain of the region, the potential for play is theoretically limitless. The Peoria I see on the way to Becker Park is comprised of small homes and emergency loan brokers—formerly fast food chains—their parking lots rough, gravelly, and veined with networks of weed. There's an EMT van parked at the park's far end, but otherwise it's just me.

The Becker Park skate node is a strip of concrete I estimate at 30 x 50 feet, which is smaller than it sounds. The node is separate from the Becker Park "Skate Trail" that encircles a baseball diamond, basketball court, and picnic area and would function something like a NASCAR pit-lane for skateboards, if skateboarders had any interest whatsoever in pushing around a looped trail.

Issue #102 of Big Brother, November 2003, features the article "Why Modular Skateparks Are Evil," in which Dave Carnie takes a moral stance against companies who exploit the growing industry by selling inferior products to those who don't know any better. The parks in question are, like Becker Park in Peoria, comprised of stand-alone ramps arranged in ways that often run directly counter to classical skateboarding instincts. Here, the American Ramp Company provides a gentle quarter-pipe, a central pyramid structure with ledges running up and down two of its sides, and a four-foot metal embankment. There is also what's known as a "fun box" and a low, short, flat-rail.

After skating Becker Park for 15 minutes, I am not convinced that it's evil, exactly, but I am bored enough to ponder the second role skate parks play, which is a kind of decoy, or cage. Generosity aside, when a city successfully confines skaters to such a rigid space—a kind of quarantine—they eliminate the activity's basic creative act. If tennis is a sport defined by movement within limitations, skateboarding is about pushing back against them. The problem is not that parks prohibit creativity, but that the silhouette of street skating they provide is a close enough approximation to dupe skaters out of the real thing.

I cycle listlessly through a series of basic tricks I've done a thousand times before, pushing on nothing. Above me the clouds have grown larger and more comfortable with one another. Later, once I'm back in Chicago, I'll see that the "About" page of The American Ramp Company's website features a link to "Jesus." Clicking it will open to a page of text entirely about Him and what happens if we do and don't let Him into our lives. Mostly about when we don't. "That means no matter how bad your life is, you can be sure that eternity will be worse."

***

I've run the numbers: writing good fiction is at least five times as hard as being a competent surgeon. We've all heard that quote about how it's easy, right?, all you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed. But what's missing here, Ernest, is every occasion when the blood comes out wrong—wrong shape, wrong color. You see the blood and know it's not your own, and if it is yours then it's even worse, because now your own blood is wrong, and ugly, and so you hate it. You think it's the ugliest, most shameful blood ever to fall. It's disgusting, you're disgusting, so you rush to the kitchen for a sponge.

It is not fun, writing. Really. To call it fun is a boldfaced lie. Unless, apparently, you are Dave Carnie. "I treat writing like skateboarding," he says. "There's no contest in skateboarding, and thus there's no practice. You're never preparing for 'the big game.' You make of it whatever you want. There's nothing to win." Curiously, though, it's when he's writing about skateboarding that Carnie's articles are weakest. Instead, the writing shines when it serves as direct medium for his character, which, again, is sometimes grotesque, but never split or conflicted, and certainly not paralyzed. It functions as a pure mimesis of skateboarding, capturing his and the activity's ethos both.

The sign at Sommer Park, 10 miles northwest of downtown Peoria, proclaims that, "Swearing, fighting, and bad attitudes will not be tolerated." Yet here I stand before an artificial skateboard terrain that should not by any stretch of necessity exist. My attitude is currently quite bad.

"Fuck," I swear, and punch the sign.

Sommer Park surrounds a branching cul de sac of a new and upscale suburban neighborhood that, when I get back to my computer and see it from above, will look to me exactly like a man bent at the waist, reaching for the floor with both hands outstretched, and hitting his head on a piano bench. I've climbed the quarterpipe, which is the only modular addition to what is an otherwise poured concrete park. I see two hubbas running down an embankment, plus a long ledge to the park's one side. Between these two obstacles sits a vertical wall with tight, steep banks up to it. I'm standing with my board on the quarterpipe's edge, ready to drop into the park. But the way the ramp is positioned, doing so will have me rolling straight into the tall embankment, an arrangement that violates all skaterly instincts, and is completely stupid. It is clear that Sommer Park was designed by someone either blind or spiteful, and by this point I'm having a difficult time remaining unsad.

***

The thunder comes from a distance. I've left my car and have begun pushing along downtown streets I'd seen only hours earlier, and which now it seems a different place entirely. The midday workers have commuted home. Streetlights have come on but don’t yet make a difference. The streets are roughly paved and the sidewalks are only slightly less rough, and both have deep seams that you have to be aware of at all times. The big ones you ollie over or else do a quick lift of your front wheels, then semi-hop your weight off the back foot as the back wheels cross, otherwise your board will stop abruptly and you will fall. The sky is the early-night type that accents the clouds' blackness with what is gradually becoming its own.

A half hour later and the clouds have lost definition. It's all deep gray. Somewhere nearby are bullfrogs, mosquitoes, and the wind sweeping across the region like a hand across tablecloth wrinkle. They do truly nod, all the plants' heads, while growing corn appears to genuflect.

Downtown Peoria at 6:30 is a city that presents as a gift of lines of shapes and surfaces. Lefebvre wrote that architecture "reproduces itself within those who use the space in question, within their lived experience." By the hill's bottom my feet have been rattled numb. I walk a block then climb a new street and feel my legs working. I hear thunder again, sharper this time. At the hilltop, I push and ollie and lean and feel the mechanics of the board and mechanics of my body and there are angles everywhere and I am indeed in here.

I know more surely who I am when pushing along a city street, finding lines to pursue. I feel, at these moments, miles removed from a persona. When there is a sewer cap, I pop over it—my board's tail scrapes and I lift and when we land on the cap's other side we are going faster. If you would like to know a skateboarder, study his elbows, examine her shins.

Our cities were built with functionality in mind, a process of closure. These three steps outside of a Chase Bank with their uses clearly defined—climbing and descent. It is indeed a challenge to this order when I skate the second of these steps, which someone has waxed. It becomes a ledge. Grinding or sliding, per Derrida, is play that disrupts the system's boundaries. Call it the reinterpretation of spaces of economic production. The self as creator of movement. The self as a small human body maneuvering among soaring architectural bodies.

Pushing hard alongside a sidewalk for which I have no current use, I am not bored. The sound of wheels is tiny thunder over which a woman's voice yells do a kickflip because today people know so many things they recently did not. Mark Besnan's triplicate account of play: unproductive, unpredictable, and even beautiful. No longer the comfortable obscurity—people stand with arms crossed and watch. And when I do fall, it is not the fault of rough pavement or sidewalk seam or any of the drivers moving through downtown. It is, like the vast majority of all skateboarding failures, due to a commitment less than complete. I cannot blame the people watching. This part is too basic to write down, but there is no cause for this failure other than: fear. And still it's the most fun thing. Where did the sky go? Bits of streetpebble are pressed into my forearm, and my elbow, which is already scarred to complete shit, opens for a dime-sized swell of blood. I stand and walk slowly back up the hill. The blood wobbles a line down my arm until I lift it and smear the line with my other hand's thumb, starting in the middle and wiping upward to my palm. Then I bend to rub this bloodied thumb against the curb. And then the rain comes.


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