A Skategeezer Ruminates on Death & Dying Introduction By Michael Brooke and Nathan Ho.
There are literally millions of articles, books, videos, podcasts and pieces of art dedicated to the ideas surrounding death and dying. But I’d wager a large fortune that very few of them give a perspective of death and dying through the lens of a skateboarder. This book aims to do just that – or at least start a conversation or two.
Firstly, I am by no means an expert in skateboarding, but I enjoy it immensely. I’ve been joyfully riding since 1975 and pride myself on riding all types of terrain with all types of boards. I enjoy street, vert, transition, longboarding, freestyle and I’ll even run slalom cones. My journey writing about skateboarding started in 1995 with this article CLICK HERE .
Dansworld was one of the first websites on skateboarding and I was fortunate to be able to write about my experiences. Full disclosure: I got the date wrong (I started riding in 1975, not 1976) but everything else is pretty much spot on. The site inspired me to create my own website. I called it The SkateGeezer Homepage. Its aim was to publicize older skateboarders and get them thinking about the nostalgic side of riding. Visit the page, if you dare, but I warn you, the graphics are pretty brutal. Then again what do you expect, it was created over 25 years ago! CLICK HERE
The SkateGeezer Homepage led to a book contract and in 1999, The Concrete Wave (the history of skateboarding) was published. It sold 42,000 copies and launched a 52 part TV series. After this, I launched International Longboarder Magazine in the summer of 1999. This magazine eventually became Concrete Wave and I published and edited it until the summer of 2018. Here’s a collection of issues: CLICK HERE
When I decided to sell the magazine, it was because I felt that it was time to do something else. Originally, I thought I’d move into working at a non-profit. It turned out that my life was going to go in a different direction. I wound up answering a job advertisement at a local funeral home. I had done some volunteer work at a nearby hospice and retirement home. After my interview, they asked me to come in for a day to try things. This was late June of 2018, and something about the job felt right.
So, for the last three years or so, I’ve been working as a funeral director’s assistant. It was quite a transition from publishing. I pretty much do everything but arrange funerals. From premature babies to those over 100 years old, I’ve experienced death up close and personal. I’ve done dozens of house calls to transfer the deceased back to our funeral home and assisted at well over 500 funerals.
It’s been over three years since I wrote about skateboarding and over 25 years since I connected with Dansworld to write my first piece. It feels wonderful to be writing again.
I want to thank my family, My wife Michal, daughter Maya and sons Jonthan and Ethan. They have been incredibly supportive of everything I’ve done. They’ve also been monumentally patient and understanding too. Without them, I’d be nowhere. I’d also like to thank Nathan Ho for inspiring me and being a catalyst for me to start writing again.
My hope is that this book inspires my fellow skateboarders to think about death and dying from a different perspective – a perspective that is uniquely ours. Thank you for taking the time to read it.
REALITY DOESN’T JUST BITE, IT SPITS!
Before I start this next chapter, I wanted to preface things with a small warning. The truth is that discussing death and dying can be very difficult for some. Nathan and I are going to hit on some very challenging and somewhat painful ideas over the course of this book. But if you picked up on what I was writing about in Chapter One, I think you’ll do just fine.
The following incident happened about three years ago, but I remember like it was yesterday. I had been at my job as a funeral director’s assistant for less than a week. It was a blazing hot day in July and I was getting to know my fellow co-workers. At the cemetery, we had spied someone lurking about 200 feet away. We were told that it was an estranged brother who was not invited to the funeral, but had somehow found out the time and place and was making his presence known. It created a little bit of intrigue, but none of us were concerned that he would do something to disrupt the funeral.
As this was literally my second or third time attending a funeral at a gravesite, I wasn’t really sure if having a lurker was a normal occurrence or something completely uncommon. It turned out to be something else – it turned out to be completely off the rails. The funeral service took about 30 minutes to finish. The family left the grave and slowly the brother walked up to the grave. He stood in front of the grave and spat on it. Then he said “I’m glad you’re dead, you f—-g c—t. He promptly left and I stood there with my jaw dropped. As he left, I could feel the tension and anger just swirling around him. I was literally stunned into silence.
I am happy to report that a scene like this is NOT a common occurrence. The amount of visceral hatred that seethed in this man’s veins was both intense and shocking. While I will never know what led up to this moment, it is forever seared in my brain. A fellow staff member remarked that he’d been working in funeral services for over 25 years and had never encountered something like this before. I guess in some crazy way, my timing was pretty good.
There is no doubt in my mind that you gain an incredible appreciation for life when you are surrounded by death. It seems oddly counter-intuitive and yet I encounter it constantly. What can we learn from my story about this man? I think you could spend many years trying to unpack a scene like this, but I think it boils down to just one crucial thing. “You gotta handle your shit, or shit will handle you.”
Clearly, this man (who appeared to be in his mid 60’s) and his mother (along with the rest of the family) needed help. He clearly carries a burning resentment that was overwhelming. Whatever history is between the family, it would appear that it was never dealt with. This man needed help. Maybe he got it, but I sense it never really helped sufficiently. Or maybe, in the last three years, he did receive some help. I can only hope that he did. Sadly, I will never know.
Skaters come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are rich, some are poor and some are middle class. I would venture a guess that a number of skaters turned to skateboarding because it was a path to freedom from an issue. These issues or problems can range from mild to severe. No matter what a skater tries to leave behind (ie: an abusive home, inattentive parents, abusive sibling or some other problem) the fact remains that skateboarding can’t fully erase the problem. Coming to terms with this can be both alarming and painful but it is necessary.
Make no mistake, I am glad I had skateboarding when I was younger. It wasn’t just a creative outlet, it provided me with a great deal of support. But in truth, I never dealt with certain shit until I reached my 50’s. Of course, things change with time and nowadays, people are a lot more open to dealing with mental health issues. But the reality is that if you use skateboarding as your only path to freedom, you aren’t dealing with the problem. This can have a substantially negative impact as you move through life.
If you carry with you hatred against people who don’t look like you or skate like you, it is you who has the problem. Skateboarding promotes the idea of freedom, but if you are running away from an issue that needs to be dealt with, you will never be truly free.
This is a hard truth but it is critical to accept. As much as we love skateboarding or any other activity, it can’t truly replace family or close friends. A skateboarder knows instinctively to value each moment riding – whether alone or in a group. But as you start to move from adolescence to middle age and beyond, you realize that skeletons in closets have a peculiar way of rearing their heads. Whatever demons you may carry, skateboarding has proven to be a great way to keep them at bay. But the demons won’t fully be exercised until you face reality.
I have tried yoga, cooking, gardening and conversing in another language. At some point or another, these activities have let me down, oftentimes with ridiculous and embarrassing results. I used to say that skateboarding never let me down. But the fact is that skateboarding is an activity, not a person. No matter how much you love your skateboard or the act of skateboarding, it will never love you back. It can’t because a skateboard is an inanimate object. An object that certainly improves your life, but it is only an object.
Skateboarding will be the catalyst for you to have experiences that you will love. Often, it will bring you people who you might grow to cherish (and respect). But the fact remains your skateboard will outlive you. In a hundred years from now, your descendants might know that you skated. But one thing is for certain. If you don’t handle your shit eventually, your descendants will have to.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Noel Korman. It was March 11, 2011 and I was at Bustin Boards new longboard shop in New York City. The shop was about to open and it made for the perfect venue to host the world’s first longboard expo. We had close to 60 different skate companies show up and it was quite the experience.
It was total pandemonium getting this expo set up. Around 10 o’clock in the morning, in strolled a guy who I’d never seen before. He put out his hand and said in a big, booming voice, “I’m Noel Korman with the Schralper’s Union. If you need anything, just let me know.” I was floored. Noel had a presence that absolutely lit up the room.
Little did I know what an auspicious moment this would turn out to be. The Schralper’s Union was Noel’s club for those who did stance sports – skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing. It was all about “spreading high fives and positive vibes.” The Union also followed something Noel had developed called “The “Code of the Shralper.” It included tenets like, “A Shralper does the right thing because it is the right thing.” and “Be prepared to sling stoke in whatever you do, however you do it.”
Noel was the kind of person that wouldn’t just give you the shirt off his back but a spare bearing, some food and drink and anything you needed. The truth was that Noel didn’t have much in this world. Some would say he was generous to a fault. To say he had a larger than life personality is a complete understatement.
Noel had spent a number of years selling skateboards and snowboards at one of New York City’s best known sporting goods stores. His goal was to create a fraternity of board sports enthusiasts in locals across the world. In the three years I knew him, we probably only met up half a dozen times. But on every occasion, Noel made such an incredible impression on me and I have such fond memories of the times we spent together.
In the summer of 2012, I found myself at Uncle Funky’s skate shop in Greenwich Village. As I walked down the stairs, I could hear Noel’s booming voice. He was there with his father, Ray. Curiously enough, I happened to be there with my youngest son, Ethan. For the next two days we spent a huge amount of time hanging out, skating and we even took a road trip to Original Skateboards in New Jersey.
There are so many stories about Noel that they would fill a 500 page book (at least!) I have never met anyone quite like him and I doubt I ever will. Noel was truly one in a million. I could go and on about what a truly remarkable person was, but I think you get the idea.
In 2014, Noel was trying urgently to make the Schralper’s Union successful. He was furiously producing t-shirts, stickers and spreading the stoke at every event he could attend. As most skaters know, it can be extremely difficult to motivate people into action. But Noel was relentless in trying to establish something of value.
On December 6th of that year, Noel was with his girlfriend, Alice Parks in a New Jersey warehouse. They were working together when the boiler in the building started to malfunction. Tragically, it started to leak carbon monoxide. At the time in the state of New Jersey, carbon monoxide detectors were only mandatory in houses and apartments. The poison leaking from the boiler eventually wound its way to Noel and Alice and they died. What is most horrendous about their deaths is the fact they were entirely preventable.
News of Noel’s and Alice’s death spread through social media. Ray called me and left one of the most gut wrenching voice mails I have ever received: “Michael, it’s Ray Korman. Noel is dead.”
At the funeral, hundreds of Noel’s friends turned out. The Shook funeral home normally didn’t allow skateboarding in its parking lot, but for that day, they posted a sign that said it was ok. The outpouring of grief on social media was truly breathtaking.
The sudden death of Noel and Alice shocked the East Coast skate community. It was such an unbelievable event and to this day I still find it incomprehensible that Noel and Alice lost their lives this way. Fortunately, as a funeral director’s assistant, I have only encountered a handful of deaths that have been sudden. One guy was a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and he got killed by car. Another died while canoeing on a lake – he was hit by a jetski.
In the months following Noel’s passing, I became more active in trying to keep his memory alive. I became very close with Ray and tried to support him any way I could. One of the key things that Ray wanted to see happen was a law that would mandate that all commercial buildings in New Jersey had carbon monoxide detectors. At the time, only houses and apartments needed detectors.
The proposed law was a way to prevent future tragedies. You’d think this law was something of a “no brainer” but somehow, politics got in the way. The Parks/Korman bill was something that Ray was adamant about getting passed in the New Jersey legislature and he worked tirelessly to make it happen. Initially, Ray received a tremendous amount of support and worked with local politicians and media. But things seemed to get bogged down in the actual passing of the bill.
In the fall of 2015, almost a year after the tragedy, I distinctly recall asking Ray what was happening. I had assumed the bill had passed. It turned out that the New Jersey legislature had indeed signed off on it. But there was one person who was holding things up. The culprit turned out to be Chris Christie – the governor of New Jersey at the time. He was so busy running around trying to get nominated for President that he had yet to sign off on the legislation.
I decided to do something about this situation. I set up an online petition demanding the governor sign off on the bill. I contacted a reporter at a local New Jersey newspaper to drum up some publicity. Almost 1,000 people signed the petition. I think that Chris Christie (or someone in his office) also must have seen what was happening and in November, he eventually signed off on the bill.
The Parks/Korman bill was a key piece of legislation, but it was born from a tragedy. Tragically, adding more grief to this ordeal is the fact that in the months that Chris Christie sat on the bill, an additional 49 people died in New Jersey from carbon monoxide poisoning in buildings that didn’t have detectors. These were senseless and completely preventable deaths.
There are no easy answers when it comes to how to deal with a sudden death. It’s been almost 7 years since Noel died and there is not a week that goes by that I don’t think about him. The only thing that comforts me is knowing that the Parks/Korman law will help prevent thousands of more deaths in the decades to come.
POSTSCRIPT: I learned in September of 2021 that Ray Korman passed away in 2019. Both will be missed.
Here’s a classic clip of Noel. Noel Korman Discusses Broadway Bomb 2013 News Coverage On NYC Ch 5 News – Sunday, October 20, 2013
Taking Things to a Whole Other Level
Inspiration For The Endless Wave – By Nathan Ho
From the moment I first stepped onto a skateboard, I knew that it was all that I ever wanted to do. There was just this inner-knowing and burning desire to learn how to skateboard. Through skateboarding, a part of me felt free to explore my surroundings and myself. I felt like I was able to appreciate and connect with my world. Skateboarding always appealed to me because there were no rules to follow and everybody was welcome.
In another light, I’d always felt different to the other kids growing up, like I was an alien from another planet. From as young as 3 years old, I can recall seeing colors, energies and spirits, having precognitive visions and actively leaving my body at night. I was a very quiet kid growing up, which I can attribute to a lot of processing of the different energies, emotions and thoughts passing through me. I had plenty of questions about life and the things that I was experiencing, but growing up in a religious family limited the availability of people who could accept and understand me. I also wasn’t the most coordinated child, (gosh these human bodies can be difficult to master!) so this translated into fumbling and clumsy mistakes in everyday activities and other sports that added to feelings of being ostracized and criticized for my differences.
Despite all my differences, skateboarding gave me a place to feel at home in my body and mind. Throughout the years, I met some amazing friends and people who gave me the acceptance and encouragement that I craved. Skateboarding was our language and one that we learnt to speak together. Those who got to know me, let me know that it was okay to be myself.
While my spiritual experiences dwindled during my teenage years, they were still etched in my mind and a big mystery for me. Conversations about spiritual experiences were off limits to my family and friends outside of skateboarding, because I already felt actively judged on almost everything. Skateboarding was my pathway to self-discovery, and it was during my early 20’s that my spiritual senses became active again.
The trust, diversity and acceptance amongst my inner circle of skateboarders is what inspired me to explore and learn more about my spiritual path. It was too loud to ignore and I couldn’t just turn it off. I furthered my studies in metaphysical topics, developed my abilities with the guidance of a mentor, began my practice as a clairvoyant healer and began exploring the world from a renewed perspective.
As I learnt to accept and express myself on all levels; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, I felt a huge shift in my appreciation, love of life and the people in it. Because I was free to express myself, I was able to experience parallels in the elation that I experienced through spirituality and skateboarding.
Outsiders of both skateboarding and spirituality are commonly misunderstood and judged. Spiritual seekers might be thought of as “alternative, freaks, hippies or weirdos”, while skateboarders might be perceived as “rowdy, troublemaking punks”. I know that both people involved in skateboarding or spirituality have a set image in mind of what each other looks like, which can often make the two paths seem very distant and different to one another.
I always felt like the two paths were very distinct, yet very similar. Skateboarders are like spiritual seekers or pilgrims and vice versa. The continual journey of continual self-improvement, seeking holy lands and sacred places immortalized in scriptures, skateboard magazines and videos, applying learnt skills to new situations, reflective practices, openness, flow, acceptance and compassion. Skateboarding is a practical and applied form of spirituality at its best!
So many similarities have revealed themselves to me in both paths and it has been through having a foot in each world, that I have been inspired to bridge both worlds. Although it has taken me several years to be able to articulate and be completely transparent about my experience of skateboarding and spirituality, the exact day that I asked for help from Archangel Michael (an strong, supportive Angel who oversees things such as protection, life-path and important life-decisions) and declared that I wanted to begin a new writing project, was the exact day that Michael Brooke, of Concrete Wave Magazine contacted me about the first blog post that I wrote about Spirituality and Skateboarding. The post that I made on Spirituality and Skateboarding dated back to 8 years ago, reading on the calendar as the date of Michael’s birthday!
All this in the space of one request of divine intervention was a strong indication that I was on the right path! Michael shared that since selling Concrete Wave Magazine he had been working as an assistant at a funeral home and also had several spiritual awakenings of his own in recent years. We exchanged our perspectives on several topics, which then led our conversations to be directed towards the possibility of writing a book together.
I feel safe and free from judgement being around skateboarders and spiritual people. In both worlds, although my friends were not always able to understand or relate to what I was talking about, they always listened without judgement. I felt like I’ve always wanted to write and share my ideas about my inner and outer worlds with others. I want to inspire the amazing people in skateboarding to be the very best they can be, in grounded, practical and relatable ways.
Skateboarding And The Soul
What is a soul? Do we all have one? A soul isn’t something that we have but rather, it’s something that we are. We are spiritual beings having human experiences and the soul is that part of us that makes us experience being alive.
Consider for a moment, the body that you have. It’s a human body. On its own, a body is a body on its own, a vessel for the soul that animates the body and brings it to life. Think of the body like a skateboard. On its own, the skateboard is just a skateboard and when someone rides it, the skateboard and the person come together and there is a bridged experience of rolling on the surface of the street, park, ditch or what have you.
Now that we have described what a soul is, many of us are probably wondering, “what does it mean to be a soul? Why does this even matter?”
When we acknowledge that we are spiritual beings and not simply human beings, we broaden the perspective of our life experience. We can begin to understand that there are things that are much bigger and more powerful than what we know, that our experiences are all connected and there is a kind of spark that brings different forms of life together. We celebrate creation and our own personal growth and development. We are granted the opportunity to see life and death as necessary parts of our journey.
Through taking on and reclaiming your own spiritual identity, you can begin to understand that your experience of life goes beyond what you experience as a human in your body. The understanding and acknowledgement of the spiritual experience in human form leads one to constantly challenge their understanding of their own identity and what is truly important and relevant for them. It’s a journey of discovery that one has to embark on for themselves and it is not something that another person can do for them.
Someone might be able to preach to you about or sell you a ‘spiritual experience’ that is designed for a human, which has the look and feel of something beyond the ordinary, everyday life. These are the kinds of external influences that might have you feeling an altered emotional or physiological state and then its effects wear off afterwards, leaving you seeking more, but missing out on the authentic and true connection to your identity from within.
I’m certain in skateboarding, there are similar things that exist that challenge one’s perception of identity and ability. These could exist in the form of products promising enhanced performance, companies that promise and compromise their riders, the rise of internet-famed skateboarders and the number skaters comparing themselves and intentionally trying to outdo each other and the infallible, celebrity-status of some skateboarders. Someone or something trying to get in touch with one’s identity in an influential way, as an agent of promising change and connection of sorts on the outside, surface level but doesn’t acknowledge or change anything on the inside.
In order to understand and appreciate our own soul, we need to strip it back to basics. What is important for us? What inspires us? What gives our life meaning? Looking at what feeds our soul, we are put in a position of living the life that fills us up from the inside out. It’s also natural for this soul nourishment to change from time to time, to reflect upon the very things that delight, inspire and nurture us.
Ask yourself why. What is your intention behind what you are doing? If you can answer this question and feel like it is an expression of you and it brings you joy, then that is something that feeds your soul. That is something that you could consider a spiritual experience and growth for your soul. These answers might look different for everyone, yet on a deep and profound level, this level of questioning for yourself encourages you to look deeper within yourself and continue on that journey of self-discovery and self-actualization.
In life, it’s quite natural and healthy to take a reality check when you enter and transition from different life phases. What are your relationships with others like? Why are you in your chosen job? What or who inspires you? Are you having fun doing what you are doing? Dig deep. What is it about these people, places, things and situations that lights a candle in your life and guides you towards finding and paving your own path? What connects you with others and empowers you to unconditionally accept and love others? What fills you up on the inside and makes you feel a sense of appreciation for living to be the very best person you can be?
On your skateboard, you might like to ask yourself why you do certain tricks, ride in a certain way or on specific terrain. Are you doing this for yourself? Are you connecting with others and feeling inspired as you are inspiring? Are you choosing to express yourself freely, knowing that you can show up as the best version of yourself?
I know the value of having role models and having someone to look up to and it’s important to consider that you’re drawing inspiration from them and translating it into your very own unique form of expression. Role models in Skateboarding aren’t those that we are trying to copy and emulate, but rather interpret and reformulate in our own way.
So what if you’ve been skating for x amount of years and you can’t do the same tricks as your friends? So what if you have tricks that you can’t do well? Who cares if others have comments to say about the way that you skate or what you wear? There are so many different ways that you can enjoy interacting with your Skateboard. Find what works for you and make that yours, you’ll feel a lot better for it in the long run than having to deal with the impacts on potential anxiety, self-esteem and stress.
This relationship between the soul and the human body could be likened to the metaphor of the skater and the skateboard. A soul needs a body to experience the full spectrum of the human living experience, just as a skateboarder needs a skateboard to ride and interact with the world from their perspective.
The two need each other in order to express what is unique and individual about them. Although the lifespan of a skateboard is much shorter than a human body, the concept of the skateboard as a body, helps to reiterate that there is a bond, presence and a synergy between both in both of these instances.
It’s true that a soul can exist in a body, but without feeling aware, engaged or present in it will lack the substance of an enriching life experience. The same goes for a skateboarder without these same things and this will be reflected in the outward appearance of their skateboarding – their attitude towards themselves and others, approach to skateboarding and their style.
To be a soul in a body is to be alive. To be a skater on a skateboard is to be alive. To be a soul in a human body is to show up the very best way possible. To be a skateboarder with a soul is to skate to show up and be your best, not to be the best.