IASC Update August 1998

I Am Happy

Happiness is relative. Happy customers. Happy employees. Happy manufacturers. A few years ago, I worked with a brain-damaged child who, despite all of his internal battles and confusion, was learning happiness. Actually, learning was the key to his happiness, the struggle of learning led him to levels of understanding that actually brought him happiness.

“I am happy,” was one of the mantras he was taught by therapists. The idea was that especially in moments of confusion and even conflict, if he could verbalize that he was happy, then he’d be closer to actually being happy. I clearly recall his face, tears streaming, eyes frightened, after he had fallen while running with other children¿he looked to me and said, while straining through his sobbing, “I am happy!”

The renowned behaviorist Konrad Lorenz captured happiness in his observations of natural phenomena in his book King Solomon’s Ring, where he describes the antics of jackdaws:

In the chimney the autumn wind sings the song of the elements, and the old firs before my study wave excitedly with their arms and sing so loudly in chorus that I can hear their sighing melody through the double panes. Suddenly, from above, a dozen black, streamlined projectiles shoot across the piece of clouded sky for which my window forms a frame. Heavily as stones they fall, fall to the tops of the firs where they suddenly sprout wings, become birds and then light feather rags that the storm seizes and whirls out of my line of vision, more rapidly than they were borne into it.

I walk to the window to watch this extraordinary game that the jackdaws are playing with the wind. A game? Yes, indeed, it is a game, in the most literal sense of the word: practiced movements, indulged in and enjoyed for their own sake and not for the achievement of a special object. And rest assured, these are not merely inborn, purely instinctive actions, but movements that they have carefully learned. All these feats that the birds are performing, their wonderful exploitation of the wind, their amazingly exact assessment of distances and, above all, their understanding of local wind conditions, their knowledge of all the up-currents, air pockets and eddies¿all this proficiency is no inheritance, but, for each bird, an individually acquired accomplishment.

And look what they do with the wind! Nearly, but only nearly, do they give the storm its head, let it throw them high, high into the heavens, till they seem to fall upwards, then, with a casual flap of a wing, they turn themselves over, open their pinions for a fraction of a second from below against the wind, and dive¿with an acceleration far greater than that of a falling stone¿into the depths below. Another tiny jerk of the wing and they return to their normal position and, on close-reefed sails, shoot away with breathless speed into the teeth of the gale, hundreds of yards to the west: this all playfully and without effort, just to spite the stupid wind that tries to drive them towards the east.

The jackdaws’ use of their natural environment for their own entertainment and happiness was brought to mind recently as I drove away from a skate demo held in Santa Barbara. The city used skateboarding to help add to the festivities celebrating the opening of a new park, a park that will eventually include a permanent 400,000-dollar come-one-come-all extravagant skateboard environment.

I flashed on Lorenz’s jackdaws. Is it the same as naturalists building wind tunnels so birds can enjoy themselves? Skateparks as wind tunnels¿the fabrication of environments in order to provide the opportunity for play? Provisional happiness. I glanced in my rear-view mirror as Mike Santarossa launched backside over a portable funbox¿was he nothing but a “streamlined projectile shooting across the piece of clouded sky?” Suddenly fearful we might be reduced to simulated environments intended to repreesent what we know as our natural world, I began to hyperventilate. Disney had just opened the new Animal Kingdom, complete with parades, and songs, and animated performers! What are we coming to? Would Lorenz be able to observe happy jackdaws in Anaheim, or Orlando?

I recalled the ditches in Texas¿the watershed system of concrete gullies and conduits forms an aqueduct-like water-removal system developed to reduce flooding from the naturally occurring thunderstorms. No Disney effects necessary. Are the ditches of Texas the longest skate environment in the world? Then natural skate environments came back to me¿Moab, Yosemite’s granite pools, the sandstone slopes in Mexico.

But it’s our naturalurban environment that offers the most potential for the contemporary skateboarder. The steps, the handrail, the embankment. The endless combinations, and the joy¿the happiness¿of their discovery.

Within moments after Santarossa left my mirrored frame, I came upon three young skaters so involved in their happiness they never took note of my presence. I sat in my car and watched as they skated an intersection of two sidewalks bordering a stretch of El Niño’d grass. The right-angle of the concrete, in contrast to the green of the turf was, quite simply for them, enough of a challenge. An ollie. A switch-stance ollie (“Their knowledge of all the up currents … “). An attempted heelflip¿made (“Yeah!”). An attempted 180 flip (” … but movements that have been carefully learned”). Skateboarding is itself a vehicle to happiness. The observer rushed on. The observed continued skating.

Skateparks? Wind tunnels? Natural environments? The urban experience? Three-hundred-eighty-nine e-mail messages to IASC: “Your mailbox is full. Unless you remove messages … ” I opened the door, grabbed my longboard, and pushed down the street. I was happy.

I am happy.

Jim Fitzpatrick is IASC’s executive director. He can be reached at: (805) 683-5676; or via e-mail: nosewriter@aol.com