Behavioral observations on the introduction of autonomous motility to a digitally-entrenched corporate whore. An essay about my introduction to the practice of parkour and its dynamic community.
Cross-Borders Jam #2
Here we go: Freeway Park, Seattle, circa summer 2006. Jump up on a dirty gray pillar, sandpaper concrete scuffing still-tender hands. (I’ve only done this a few times now.) Crouch down into a fists-at-feet gorilla-style perch and watch for stragglers crossing toward the fountain. Emerging from the city jungle, the ones who know me call me by name: Hey Raindog! It’s July’s final Sunday but still plenty of summer left — always something to cherish in a town so drenched we don’t even bother with carrying umbrellas anymore. Behind me, amid the concrete maze all draped in lush green tentacles, is the usual cross-section of local color: Convention Center sales suits tote briefcases in purposeful stride, sun reflecting off of shiny black shoes, while Mad Dog-soaked knapsackers shrouded in 7-month-beards look on from the benches, sitting this one out. Freeway Park: a community of circumstance dead-center in a city founded on making the best of poor planning. A place to work, live and play, held inexplicably together inside a bigass floating geometry lesson with a highway spilling out underneath. This is where the fun begins.
I’m up here in my new 5.10s for the biggest Parkour event in the history of the Northwest. A gathering of traceurs from Oregon to BC, here to learn, teach and show-off. We congregate at the foot of the concrete fountain walls — slices of upended highway — and exchange a mix of names and handles. And then off we go, flowing through the park and the streets of downtown Seattle like a big blurry protracted organism, disparate appendages weaving over and through man’s cubist urban constructions. A multi-threaded and loosely-affiliated collective consciousness composed of nodes acting simultaneously as parts and wholes; each leading and following the others. Point B ahead; don’t stop.
This is Parkour. “The essence of Parkour can be stated simply: it is the art of overcoming obstacles as swiftly and efficiently as possible using only your body. The fundamentals include running, jumping, and climbing and we build on these fundamentals to improve our ability to pass over, under, around and through obstacles with more complex movements. We are a community of traceurs (Parkour practitioners) who connect online and in person to train, discuss and share knowledge about the world of Parkour. We practice in the urban and natural environments and encourage creativity, safety, self-discipline, and respect for the community in the practice of Parkour. We welcome anyone regardless of experience.” Those are the words I put on the front page of washingtonparkour.com when I appointed myself Code Monkey and redesigned it early in 2007. By then it had become more a part of my life than I had ever expected on that day in July. It was a catalyst, if not a driving force, for a fundamental change in my perspective and lifestyle. This is my humble attempt to explain how it happened.
So how did a not-particularly-coordinated, near-thirtysomething, traveling corporate whore, replete with all the trappings of modern techno-yuppie life and enough frequent-flyer miles for a round-trip vacation to Alpha Centauri, become interested in the world’s newest extreme sport? It was a strange match, to be sure. After all, most of the kids in this scene had either extensive martial arts experience or were just well-suited to communities spawned on the Internet: they traded Oblivion secrets and quoted Napoleon Dynamite — things that weren’t so much uninteresting to me as they were completely alien. At twenty-eight, after being in the Parkour community for all of a week, I became an unofficial founding member of Team Hip Replacement because I’d had a driver’s license for more than 12 hours, not to mention a mortgage and a retirement account. Retirement account? Holy crap, I am old.
The attraction to Parkour is different, I think, for the variety of generations it attracts. For me, it was the rediscovery of the tactile world and what I perceived as my last chance to make an attempt at youth. In a world where WAN-enabled battery-powered exocorteces pretty much ruled my life, Parkour so quintessentially embodied my desire for unfiltered interaction with the world that it only took reading an article in Utne magazine about Toronto traceurs while on the toilet one day to know that it was exactly what I needed. A flux capacitor-style revelation (only I wouldn’t actually hit my head until a few months later). It might be similar for the younger traceurs, the principal constituency of this community, but I’d be remiss to attempt to speak for them. They seem to live in a different world most of the time and yet I am constantly humbled and impressed at their endless energy and capacity for invention. My well-traveled, worldly business acumen means nothing here, for this is pure animal response; reactions in fast-forward, ideally suited to the modern rapid-fire and hyper-creative mind. I can only be sure of one commonality: we are exploring the world around us amidst the millions who would simply accept it for what it is. We invent, as we go along, a sort of urban frontierism.
I actually rather liked my perma-connected life. Interacting with computers is wonderful; bits of elegantly assembled logic are rewarded, while failures of reasoning are met with runtime errors. A system of classical conditioning, bring your own propeller beanie. Life was comfortable and consistent, with corporate perks and a fancy title. But somewhere inside I had an unrealized need to go out and play. My love of exercise had been shelved by sterile gym workouts and the predictable boredom (and shin splints) of increasingly longer-distance running. Mostly, Parkour looked like FUN. I didn’t harbor any delusions of leaping from rooftop to rooftop or doing front flips out of third-story windows like the dudes on YouTube, but the basic movements — running, jumping, rolling on the ground — I could do that. And sometime in January last year I gave it a try, after being graciously reassured by a thriving online community called Washington Parkour that I wasn’t too old to learn something new. Well, I learned a lot, including that there were muscles in my body that may have never been used before. It was exhilarating. Parkour is hands down the most comprehensive, most rewarding workout I’ve ever done. And that’s just the physical part.
Back to the Earth
My introduction to Parkour coincided, we’ll say coincidentally for now, with my learning a new skill called flint knapping — the forming of primitive tools and weapons (obsidian arrowheads for example) using rocks and very simple tools. If you’re keeping a tally of important steps in human evolution, that was a big one right there. I’ve been told that at one point in human history, not very long ago, there was a single solitary person remaining on earth who carried the knowledge of flint knapping techniques. Fortunately he managed to pass it on to a few other dudes who in turn recirculated the knowledge into society, keeping it alive so that I could have the opportunity to whack some rocks and metal together at the proper angles and wind up with something vaguely resembling a blade. And what if he hadn’t? What sort of fantastic feats of human engineering have been gained and lost along the way before there was an Internet to record everything?
Anyway, these two pastimes — Parkour and flint knapping — seem to have given me permission to follow a path that I’d only admired from a distance before; a kind of evolutionary renaissance that sparked aspirations of self-sufficiency and man-of-the-worldness. The ability to interact directly with the world using only my body or some simple tools that I created myself has afforded me some perspective on modern life. Not in a Unabomber sort of way, but by simply making me aware of how many steps removed from nature are things like laptop computers, internal combustion engines, and imported fruit. And the fact that I can choose, to some extent, how much of that processed life I buy into. I try to focus on the positive results that come out of this understanding: removing barriers between me and my food by buying local and organic, simplifying my transportation by biking whenever possible. These concepts are not new to a tree-hugging liberal like myself, but they’re somehow more tangible to me now that I know what the earth feels like again. And even if I never completely shake the grid, it’s still a lot of fun running down the up-escalator of technological evolution, at least in-between work hours.
The Kids Are Alright
I have been in the Northwest for seven years now. An East-coast transplant who divides most of his time between the home office and airplanes, I’ve been, with only a few exceptions, almost entirely unsuccessful at building meaningful friendships. Ironically, it was these ideas of direct interaction with the world that finally led me into a community overflowing with creativity and enthusiastic openness like I had never before seen. The social aspect of the Northwest Parkour scene is in fact so accessible and dynamic that it sometimes overshadows the focus of our Parkour jams, changing them from smoothly flowing full-body group workouts into slowly meandering herds of friends chattering about everything from Internet memes to martial arts, and occasionally leaping up on walls or vaulting railings. (This phenomenon, in fact, has led some of us to organize smaller non-public jams with as few as two people, to draw the focus back on the fundamentals of Parkour and continue to push our physical limitations). But I’m not worried. I believe this evolution is just an outcropping of a community that is experiencing some healthy growth a bit faster than it knows how to handle. After all, too many friends in one place is a great problem to have, and even the most laid-back social jams are still, with their multi-generational constituency of obstacle-oriented, open-minded people, a pretty kickass way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Of all the surprising by-products of my foray into Parkour, this inclusiveness and camaraderie was the least expected, and the most welcome. The competitive, hero-worshiping, and intellectually vacuous culture of most sports has always been of keen disinterest to me; sports were activities I dismissed as politics for idiots. Parkour is exactly the opposite: a community of people who, in between helping each other run up brick walls, like to meet up for lunch and discuss performance art or quantum physics, and who have even formed a non-profit association to organize community service events and promote the philosophy, education and benefits of Parkour. A sport for nerds, where conscientious, independent thinkers aren’t booed off the field? A sport without conformity, without uniforms, where every kid starts and the game is only over when we’re too tired to play tag on all-fours? Stranger things have happened I guess. But the real prize here was the rapidity with which I formed some very strong friendships, and the opportunity to keep forming new ones each time I go outside to play.
Cross Borders Jam #2: One Year Later
As the citizens of Seattle begin, once again, to wonder about that strange yellow ball of light in the sky, I am thinking back on a year that has transformed my life. Since my first major Parkour jam at Freeway Park in summer 2006, I’ve accumulated more physical strength, more awareness of the world around me, and more friends than I can remember doing at any other point in my life; certainly in the seven years since moving to Seattle. Was it all thanks to Parkour? I don’t know. As I finish up my third decade on this planet, I have an unmistakable desire to make up for all the time I spent trying to grow up. And perhaps that would have inevitably led to something else new and exciting had the timing of that Parkour article not been so fortuitous. Perhaps I’d be writing instead a lengthy endorsement of the life-affirming qualities of cave exploration, skydiving, or extreme underwater quilting. But Parkour was there, and it was exactly what I needed.