By Kyle Beachy
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Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR • Southwest Review • Electric Literature
Perfect for fans of Barbarian Days, this memoir in essays follows one man's decade-long quest to uncover the hidden meaning of skateboarding, and explores how this search led unexpectedly to insights on marriage, love, loss, American invention, and growing old.
In January 2012, creative writing professor and novelist Kyle Beachy published one of his first essays on skate culture, an exploration of how Nike’s corporate strategy successfully gutted the once-mighty independent skate shoe market. Beachy has since established himself as skate culture's freshest, most illuminating, at times most controversial voice, writing candidly about the increasingly popular and fast-changing pastime he first picked up as a young boy and has continued to practice well into adulthood.
What is skateboarding? What does it mean to continue skateboarding after the age of forty, four decades after the kickflip was invented? How does one live authentically as an adult while staying true to a passion cemented in childhood? How does skateboarding shape one's understanding of contemporary American life? Of growing old and getting married?
Contemplating these questions and more, Beachy offers a deep exploration of a pastime—often overlooked, regularly maligned—whose seeming simplicity conceals universal truths. THE MOST FUN THING is both a rich account of a hobby and a collection of the lessons skateboarding has taught Beachy—and what it continues to teach him as he strugglesto find space for it as an adult, a professor, and a husband.
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I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility.
You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away.
Begin with a bench, wooden and backless and tucked into a shadowy, quiet corner in the Modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Before it, a towering window overlooks an expansive park known for its playful public art and metallic concert venue and a perimeter of historic buildings that seem to lean over the park like tourists, like fawning onlookers who have for some reason forgotten their pride. Anyway, I don’t look out that window. When I come to the bench, I sit facing the other direction. There are visits when I skip the art entirely and come straight here to inhale the strange netherness of the space and watch the feet and shins of people climbing and descending through the pale slats of a floating stairway.
I have spent, you might say, much of my life looking at nothing. Before this bench, it was another bench in a park not far from my home. I’ll try to describe how it happened: One afternoon, I headed out for a walk, and coming upon this bench was compelled to stop walking. Here it gets tricky. I can say that I felt or heard something shaking toward the edges of this place, that I sensed the bench was looking at me, a sort of two-way interrogation. So, I sat down as the bench would have me, with my back to this strip of the historic Emerald Necklace in Chicago, the city in a garden, my back to the ashes, beeches, and elms, the Kentucky coffee trees, catalpas, and tulip trees—everything green and living. Instead, I faced the undefined patch of asphalt before me, a crosshatch of unnamed and unaddressed pavement that belongs, I suppose, to Richmond Street, where it intersects the byway and boulevard and turns into a proper residential street to my left.
But here: not a street. Something else. With the museum bench this place shares a sense of…what? A kind of benevolent abyss? A peculiar virtue of non-ness? They have no place among a world that commands attention. They are weird and deliberate breaks in the city’s system, small moments set aside like gifts. And somewhere at their core, in their chemistry or constitution, these two places owe my experience of them to the activity that has shaped much of my life. In this way, they recall another place I discovered by total accident seventeen years ago, just weeks after I moved to Chicago.
* * *
I have my wife to thank for my casual access to the art museum. I remember passing by the museum one fall afternoon while out for a walk between classes and sending a text that I would like a membership for Christmas. So, it was a gift, or sort of a gift, that three years on has become something of a tradition. Each year, I open a card that reminds me of the time I texted and asked for the membership, and I smile and lean to kiss or embrace her with thanks. One could wonder, if one’s the type, where exactly to slot these memberships in terms of generosity—is it a gift, really, if it’s specifically requested? Or is it more a matter of following instructions? And, furthermore, what of the gratitude conveyed by my smile and embrace when I know full well what the envelope contains? Are these lies? And if so, small ones? Or is this the biggest and most encompassing lie there is, the old one about two people living in love and harmony until they die?
In any case, it began with wanting a thing and knowing that the best way to get the thing was to ask for it directly. The alternative was, I guess, to convey my desires in an indirect way so that we might both participate in the romance of gifting—to have enough faith in both my performance of desire and my wife’s interest in sensing that desire, reading it like a fisherman reads the sea. And then, poof—produce from all of this the perfect gift, given perfectly.
* * *
There’s a line that I think of all the time. It comes from a novel that I love and that nobody else seems to even like, really. The line goes, “Why is it so hard to be serious, so easy to be too serious?”
I was thinking these words when I returned to that original nonplace several weeks ago. As the city’s six elevated local train lines come into the Loop, two of them descend underground. Down here, riders of the Blue Line who are inclined to wander can, with little effort, discover stretches of platform where no trains stop—where nothing, in fact, starts or stops. Here, everything just continues on either side in a rattling blur of lights. The stretch that I know best lies between the Monroe and Jackson stations. Can I describe to you the promise I’ve been trained to see in this long stretch of nothing? As with the museum bench against that window, and the bench before the crosshatched square of asphalt, to occupy this stretch of antiplatform is to sense a contradiction, or perhaps something stolen—the feeling of a thing just beyond my reach.
* * *
A big challenge of marriage that nobody likes to talk about is how you will continue, always, to know yourself better than your spouse does. Your spouse, who likely knows you better than anyone else alive—at least, the you that you’ve become, who is similar to but not the same you that your oldest friends and family know—will still find new ways not to know you. Regularly. Daily, it feels. And these uncloseable fissures in understanding are disappointing. How can they still not know? What a terrible insult to the very principle that, by getting married, after much romance and consideration, the two of you agreed to buy into.
Standing in the middle of the platform—or nonplatform—you sense that you’re not supposed to be there. It is not hidden, exactly. It’s not fenced or blocked on either end, nor can it really be said to have an end. You come down the seventy-four steps from street level and…just keep walking—or rolling, if you’re on a skateboard—until one station disappears and the next is there in the distance. Something is wrong, and yet I am more myself here than I was just ten, twelve steps ago. Do you know this feeling? The ground is perfectly smooth red concrete, water sealed and seamless but for a couple grates that make for perfect incidental gaps to scrape a tail or pop over. In fact, the whole place looks designed for filming. No—as if it’s already being filmed and you’ve just happened to step or roll inside.
* * *
Marriage is an idea that is a law that is a speech act—the officiant pronounces, and as soon as it’s pronounced, the thing becomes reality. You are what they say you are. Married. United. Bound. But somehow, also, still yourselves. You continue to be private, separate people who continue to grow and shift in totally different ways with little concern for symmetry or coordination. I love my wife profoundly and still, always, feel that I never quite have secure footing inside this agreement we’ve made. Why wouldn’t I simply buy the membership myself? Why did I want so badly for it to come from her? What is behind these mundane contortions of generosity and gratitude and torqued communication? I have no idea, except to say the word itself, knowing the word does nothing to answer the question: marriage.
* * *
I can recall, as a child, staring up at the clean, languid vaults of the main terminal of St. Louis Lambert International Airport, and without pause or effort inverting the ceiling so it became a landscape of skateboarding dreams. What I’m describing goes beyond wanting to play where laws of decorum and physics insist that I cannot. Skateboarders will understand: there is a way of being that grows out of our time with the activity—something earned, learned, or lived that has yet, to my eyes, to be adequately explored.
I have been told that I take skateboarding too seriously. And, well, maybe. But there is a mystery at hand, and in it I hear the echoes of others. Of meaning and meaninglessness, of the stories we cannot help but tell and the times when stories are shaped all wrong. I speak only for myself, from these places that this life has trained me to find and occupy and take as small, strange comfort. These are the nonstations and nonplaces where the very concepts of beginning and ending are upended and made moot, where I can confront the fragile, contingent, and obvious—can confront, I suppose, myselves.
This is where the meaningless activity has brought me. Via a long sequence of questions about selfhood and performance, about watching and comprehending, I have come to think that the style skateboarders speak of might, in fact, be a tool for understanding what mankind used to call the soul. Standing on the nonplatform between two rushing trains, it all feels so incredibly clear. What if the soul exists not as some orb or interior essence, but rather as a process of release, on one side, and perception, on the other? Does that make sense to anyone but me? I have so far only really tried to explain this to my wife. Soul, I mean, as a system between actor and audience, the membrane across which one individual and another converse. Is this…too serious? Have I gone too far?
In our kitchen in the morning I will sing, and occasionally I will dance through our home like a fool. My wife will do the same, though her voice is lovely and her moves, unlike mine, are beautiful. We speak in codes and we speak directly, our stuttered conversation endless and ongoing. We cover the same familiar ground again and again. We watch each other and try to understand.
For Whom Is the
Fun Thing Fun?
On a sunny afternoon in the middle of a global pandemic, I go out for a long, solitary walk through Blue Line Chicago. To live in a city is to find oneself constantly choosing among modes of transportation. For most of the seventeen years I’ve lived here, when I’ve walked it’s been from my home to the train, from the train to my destination. But these are days of working from a shared in-home office, my wife’s desk and my own facing each other so that our two offset monitors create a partition. In the evenings, we walk the neighborhood together like retirees. Alone, I construct full outings around slow, single tasks. I pass the bars and stores along Milwaukee Avenue, all shuttered and the parking spots empty. Today the sun is high and the sky very clear. I make it to the park and sit for a time with a book, watch some dogs, then decide to get to my errand.
I backtrack, peel off, and wind behind a row of storefronts—you can cross Chicago entirely through alleys if you like. This one is beneath the tracks. I press fingers into my ears to muffle the sound of an inbound train and stand before the open rear door of Uprise. I can see inside through a locked scissor gate, so I holler to my two friends working up front, Paul and G. After some discussion, G lets me in. We move through one of two inventory rooms, past shelves filled with row upon row of turquoise Nike SB boxes (the other room, behind the abutting storefront Uprise expanded into in 2016, is devoted entirely to red-and-cardboard-colored Vans stock). The front room, the show floor, has been turned into a shipping and receiving station full of outgoing orders, tape guns, and packing slips. The lights are off but the sun through the windows is plenty. Still, despite there being no customers, an old skateboard video is playing on the TV mounted up near the ceiling.
The shop is closed and I shouldn’t be in here. But they’re bored with this new mode of business and I’ve gone weeks without a fix, so we risk it, respecting one another’s distance. I lean against the glass case of wheels and we catch up about Paul’s art, G’s side hustles, my writing. I do what I’ve always done in skate shops, moving along the racks of hanging clothes. I pick a thing and hold it, put it back, then lean over the glass case and examine the wheels. G asks about my wife, who likes G, likes pressing him on his lifestyle and vernacular and casual offhand comments. Then, G takes one of several phone calls that will come during the fifteen minutes I’ll spend here, which are of two sorts: The first are inquiries into the upcoming Nike SB quickstrike drop on Friday, for which there is a raffle with very rigid entry guidelines. These calls have become standard for shops like Uprise, which serve as temporary holding cells for these footwear commodities that arrive with great hype, sell out immediately, and go straight to resale websites.
The second sort of call would seem tied to the current pandemic. Parents, you see, are growing desperate for new ways to entertain their children at home. So, G slowly and patiently explains what he’d otherwise hold, show, and compare side by side. A skateboard is built from a wooden deck, two trucks that serve as suspension, and four wheels, each of which spins upon two sets of ball bearings. A pack of bolts and nuts holds it all together, and a sheet of griptape is filed and razor cut to fit the board’s shape.
“Boards are all about thirty-two inches long, unless you get a mini. How old is your kid?” I am tickled to hear G adopting professional patience. “They go from about seven and a half inches to eight and a half or nine, for a standard popsicle. Or we’ve got bigger shaped decks, like the old-school decks from the eighties? Yeah, like reissues.”
Soon, I will leave carrying my own new deck and a sheet of grip rolled into a tube. At home, I’ll tear away the cellophane and peel off the warning sticker: Skate within your abilities. Injury or death may result from improper use. Wear safety gear. Follow traffic/pedestrian safety rules. I’ll hear my wife on a work call in the office, unroll the grip and remove its paper to expose the adhesive, then lay and press it carefully onto the deck so that a sliver, a tiny slice, of the board’s nose (its front) remains uncovered. This blip of revealed wood grain will mean that I won’t have to think about which direction is forward. I cannot stress enough how important this last step is, ensuring a future occasion when I’ll not have to think.
But for now, I linger a few minutes longer. The video up on the screen is an old one, not quite a classic but one I’ve watched four or five times. Would that I could pull a G here, and speak in clear, professional terms to communicate the ways these videos matter. Unlike music and sports, skateboarding has little use for live-action events attended by fans. Its media is the message—between magazines and these videos lives a culture that rejects official rules while resting upon a rich latticework of values, authored and archived by this same media. Precedent is established only to be challenged and warped by each successive new release. These videos are portals to worlds askew, and I can still recall the way my first exposure left me dizzy with possibilities for movement, for appearance and attitude—well, possibilities for being. As objects, the best of them are rich with tonal shifts and allusion and homage, working within and pushing against established forms like the most exciting works of art. And how fun they are to watch, how visceral at times, like little grenades of spectacle that explode with affect.
I’ve been lucky in these thirty-some years of skateboarding to have always had a good shop nearby, and Uprise is the best of them by far. I could list these shops in the order they matter, could sketch their layouts as sure as I could describe old familiar routes to school or family seating arrangements at the dinner table. Two days ago, I chipped my current board by throwing it against a wall during a minor, halfway-serious tantrum. It was stupid and childish, and I regretted it immediately, but not enough to keep skating on a chipped board. I am a forty-one-year-old man with a steady income for whom skateboarding continues to fill a necessary if difficult-to-name void. So, while I protest the discount G gives me at the register and make a show of wanting to support the business during this tough economy, I eventually relent. I accept his discount just as I accept the boxes of boards and other hardware, the shoes and apparel that have on occasion appeared on my doorstep—with absolute glee. Because in truth, there is no other thing I know will bring me joy like having somehow earned my way into these small but divine returns.
* * *
In August 2011, I wrote an e-mail to the editors of a start-up online sports magazine called The Classical. I introduced myself as a professor of literature and creative writing with one novel published and a second in progress. If you want to know skateboarding, I told them, look at a skater’s elbows. Examine their shins.1 It was a plea rooted in the authenticity to which my own scarred elbows and shins did attest. I wanted, I told them, to be their new skateboarding columnist.
As soon as I sent it, I felt ridiculous. I was no journalist. Anything I’d written about skateboarding had been either private, fictional draft work or a casual blog post. I had a brand-new, full-time, tenure-track teaching job that came with institutional expectations for a completed and published novel, soon. But there was something pressing, I felt, in the young decade apropos the activity and industry and culture of skateboarding. A former professional skater–turned–actor had transformed an old LA warehouse into a content factory. Street League Skateboarding was on the rise as an ESPN centerpiece, with real-time scoring, winner-take-all finals, and, like, jumbotrons. Odd Future’s usurpation of skateboarding’s aesthetic reversed skateboarding’s own pirating of backpack rap in the early nineties, a move that proved lifesaving at a time when skate culture was at its absolute ugliest. There was emergent streetwear hoopla, Supreme and Palace, and the looming specter of the Olympics.
It was a state of strange, lawless transition, and of course, a geologic disruption of media—new phones, Instagram, and a suddenly overwhelming daily torrent of skateboard content.
Since the mid-1980s, skateboarding has been well ahead of the broader cultural curve with regard to lifestyle documentation. The full-length videos that emerged concurrent with the proliferation of handheld home video cameras became, by the early nineties, the world’s best access to an era of radical invention. These VHS tapes were between a half and a full hour long and divvied into sections devoted to individual skaters, which we called parts. A part presents a song’s length of footage, compiled over months and years in different urban locations and arranged into a sequence of single maneuvers and lines of tricks strung together.
There were also montage segments and, though they are rare today, a so-called slam section made from clips of the most terrible and injurious failures. And always, as interstitial material or brief surfacings from the depths, some element of hijinks—mayhem inside the tour van or pranks at the hotel, objects thrown from balconies. Sometimes scripted, sometimes not, these provided a kind of lingua franca for skaters dispersed across the country. They made humans—if flat and incomplete ones—of our legends, gave voice and character to the skaters whose photos were taped to our walls and to the companies whose exactly similar products we’d choose between at the shop—they created, in a word, branding.
By 2011, it was fairly clear that these films, the time and budgets required to produce and distribute them, were incompatible with emergent technological, distributive, and consumptive trends. They were being challenged by the release of individual parts, which we’d continue to call “parts” even when there was no whole from which they’d come, and they’d be challenged next by the widespread and scattershot broadcasting of even shorter clips, sometimes of single tricks looped into infinite, sacralized repetition via social networks. The stories were breaking down, the statues showing cracks, and the conversation was demanding new tools, new approaches.
What I did not mention in that first e-mail were the questions I had. What was the grip, really, that this practice had on me? Skateboarding was not good for my career or dating life. At times, I’d stand in the hot shower watching grime and blood circle at my feet and think, Wouldn’t it be pleasant to not be so tender? To not always have a wrist or ankle or knee ache? To not ruin a new work shirt by knocking loose an elbow scab against a lectern?
To discuss any of this with others like me could only go so far—what might one skater say to another about this most obvious thing? We tended to nod knowingly and retreat, grateful for the strange embrace of our baffling hobby. I guess I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more. I wanted meaning. And, while all of the six decades since skateboarding’s invention have seen change—growth, retraction, trends in tricks and terrain and the fits of our pants—it would be difficult to argue now, peering back after the end of the 2010s, that any decade saw more significant change in the ways that skateboarding means.
* * *
Indulge me an aside, please. In May 2015, three months after we were married, my wife and I traveled to England to visit my maternal family and then to Paris to visit the city of fame and renown. In Bristol and Bath, the two of us moved through homes and pubs with what felt to me like new authority and purpose. We were feted and looked at and loved by family members whose names my wife helped me with, because her memory is very good, while mine is shit, truly, shit.
In those early days of marriage, I’d occasionally catch myself looking at her with newfound gravity, as if the air around her had become more interested in her skin. We had been friends for eight years by then, lovers for four, but I do not exaggerate when I say that time and space were working differently about my wife’s physical form, rendering her personhood newly familiar, or unfamiliar; I wasn’t quite sure. Something invisible was different.
Anyway, under the Channel we went, to emerge in a city I’d visited twice before and she had never seen. Our rental was in Montmartre, a short walk from Gare du Nord. For four days we toured the city by foot and bus and boat. We wandered and had sex in a stranger’s bed surrounded by a stranger’s intimate things, and occasionally one of us would repeat the small private joke we were using as a kind of refrain to mark the time of our honeymoon. The joke was that, without warning and apropos of nothing, one of us, in a bad French accent, would go, “You know, Maupassant used to…” and then something about umbrellas or snails or whatever. Whether or not my wife found the joke half as funny as I did, she humored me convincingly. For this was early enough in marriage that we hadn’t yet tired of convincing each other of that which we believed the other should by now know.
“It’s the only place in Paris,” writes Roland Barthes, speaking in the voice of Maupassant, “where I don’t have to see it.” It meaning the Eiffel Tower, where Maupassant used to eat lunch so he could escape having to see it. From the second-floor observation deck, we saw, more or less, what Barthes saw: the transformative power of altitude that “makes the city into a kind of nature.” So, together we saw the city anew, and down the stairs we laughed, and on the ground laughed even more, wife and husband crossing the Seine on the Passerelle Debilly and strolling beneath a clearing sky along the Avenue de New York, approaching the Palais de Tokyo from the south, through a massive marble courtyard encircling an expansive central fountain with mellow, marble steps and reclining statues. At which point I had a strange experience that separated us totally.
It was a phenomenon I’d felt twice before. The first was in 1996 in San Francisco, moving down Market Street with my father, there to visit colleges. I remember moving quickly, watching the bricks of the sidewalk pass under my shoes and knowing where I was leading us but fearing he’d think it stupid, feeling this fear as a kind of pain and thinking, No, turn back. It’s not here anyway, is it? But when I saw the palm trees I knew to look left and suddenly all fear was gone. It didn’t matter if it was stupid, because we had arrived, and I was standing before Justin Herman Plaza, the world-famous Embarcadero, birthplace of modern street skating in the early 1990s, bursting open before my eyes. It happened again in 2003 in Philadelphia, this time with a handful of like-minded travelers who shared my aim, Center City smaller than any of us expected and the statue surprising all of us at once—LOVE—every ledge waxed, every planter laid there explicitly for us, to stop us just as they’d tried to stop everyone else. It was itself, and we were there.
- “The year 2021 is the year of skateboarding. The ‘rebel’ pursuit was transformed into an Olympic sport. Thrasher magazine, skateboarding's bible, turned 40. So The Most Fun Thing couldn't have come at a better time [to] ponder the meaning of skateboarding.”—NPR
- "The Most Fun Thing mines the value and ritual of fun… [Beachy’s] encyclopedic knowledge of skate ‘parts’ (a.k.a., films), bios, technicalities, even feuds, rolls into contemplations of Marilynne Robinson or Maggie Nelson… the book is grounded in memoir, vulnerable and direct, and often a stage for Kyle’s wit. The text can rollick… [Beachy] is now a premier chronicler of skateboarding."—Odie Lindsey, Southwest Review
- "As readable as a skate mag and as complex as the best fiction, The Most Fun Thing imbricates themes of meaning, community, and the soul, and will leave you marveling at skateboarding’s mystery and hopeful for its future. A book as much for the skateboarder as the artist and the writer, the thinker, the feeler."—Mark Suciu, Thrasher Magazine's 2021 Skater of the Year
- “A candid, funny, and sometimes damning rumination on why we skateboard. The most thought-provoking writing on skateboarding I’ve ever read.”—Bing Liu, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap
- “A rewarding read even—or especially—for those of us who don’t know anything about skateboarding…. with a keen eye for nuance and an unflinching critical lens that’s as apt to magnify moments of intense beauty as to call bullsh*t on this lifelong obsession... Endlessly relevant.”—Holly M. Wendt, The Rumpus
- “Transform[s] the ordinary into the extraordinary. . . . Beachy has written a book about skateboarding unlike any before it.”—The Chicago Reader
- “Philosophical and provocative.”—Booklist
- "A serious literary work about skateboarding might provoke a certain skepticism. I wondered. But as soon as I started reading, I saw that, as with fly-fishing, surfing and other ‘pastimes,’ the surface action has its underlying personal metaphysics, and its access to past times. Kyle Beachy explores his obsession with sinuous and reflective prose and shows us just how it matters."—Sven Birkerts, author of The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
- "In The Most Fun Thing, Kyle Beachy assembles critique, philosophy, anecdote, personal history and imagination, while being shrewd, witty, provocative and—above all—hugely engaging. This is my new favorite book on skateboarding."—Iain Borden, author of Skateboarding and the City: A Complete History
- "Skateboarding is not only the most fun thing, it is also a way of seeing the world. In telling his own story, Beachy reflects on the history of this counter-culture-turned-mainstream-culture, and shows how it shapes the fundamental aspects of life, one's approach to work and relationships, even changes the feeling of being in one's own skin. No one has captured this better than Beachy. A great read."—Ocean Howell, author of Making the Mission: Planning and Ethnicity in San Francisco
“With the studied curiosity he’s established as a writer and critic, Beachy applies his honest, thoughtful prose to a wealth of seemingly disparate genres, binding them to create a work equal parts lively and insightful, intimate and universal, something his very own.”—Amelia Gray, author of Gutshot
- "Reading The Most Fun Thing is the most fun thing that this reader has done in months. Kyle Beachy knows his skateboarding, but has even more to say about urban design, literary theory, marriage, the struggle for selfhood, the long-overdue exorcism of skate culture’s misogyny and bigotry, and the eternal knife fight between capitalism and community. With an omnivorous and probing intelligence, Beachy views our tattered world through the scratched fish-eye lens of a skateboarder, and finds jewels of truth hidden everywhere he looks."—Michael Christie, author of Greenwood and If I Fall, If I Die
- “A meditation on a struggling marriage, told as homage to a joyfully blood-drenched sport. Thoughtful and deft, this is a book for anyone who has ever been vulnerable in mind or body.”—Kerry Howley, author of Thrown
- On Sale
- Aug 10, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing