This month FLIP has the honor of hosting guest-columnist Bret Anthony Johnston, Director of Harvard’s Creative Writing Program and author of the much-lauded short story collection Corpus Christi. In addition to his more traditional literary output Johnston—himself an avid skateboarder—has emerged as one of skateboarding’s most discerning and yet heartfelt observers. Think Nabokov on tennis or Plimpton on boxing. Here Johnston offers a book review of Tony Hawk’s recent non-fiction title How Did I Get Here?: The Ascent Of An Unlikely CEO, as well as a meditation on Hawk’s continuing cultural significance. You can find Bret Anthony Johnston at www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.

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VITALS

Tony Hawk is a 42 year-old American male, a professional skateboarder who has been specializing in ramp or “vert” skating since his early teens. He is a father of four, a video game character (on 79 different gaming platforms), an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a spokesman, a Sirius satellite radio-show host, a frequent television personality (The Simpsons, CBS’s I Get That A Lot, CSI: Miami, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, Yo Gabba Gabba!, the Stand Up To Cancer telethon, and so on), an ESPN X Games commentator, an infrequent film actor (xXx, Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, Gleaming the Cube, Thrashin’), and a multiple X Games gold medalist. He’s been part of the Got Milk? campaign. He was an extra in a Weird Al Yankovic video. His non-profit organization, The Tony Hawk Foundation, has raised millions of dollars to build municipal skateparks around the country, many in low-income communities. He owns Birdhouse Skateboards and a production company, 900 Films. In 1999, he became the first skateboarder to land the elusive 900 (two and a half aerial rotations on a halfpipe). In 2009, he famously tweeted a photo of himself skateboarding (technically he was doing a Manual, which is a wheelie) inside the Grand Foyer of the White House. In 2010, he published his second co-authored book How Did I Get Here? The Ascent of an Unlikely CEO.

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ABOUT THE DUST JACKET OF
HOW DID I GET HERE?
THE ASCENT OF AN UNLIKELY CEO

In terms of color scheme, the dust jacket is done in tasteful muted tones. The lettering is distressed and all-caps, with Hawk’s name and the subtitle rendered in white, the main title in orange, and the co-author, Hawk’s older sister, Pat’s name in considerably smaller grey letters. The central image on the cover is of Hawk skateboarding on a halfpipe wearing a slate-colored suit, black dress shirt and matching tie, and skate sneakers. The image is embossed. On the back cover Hawk is standing at the bottom of the ramp, looking markedly less comfortable in the same outfit. The photo is uncannily reminiscent of prom photos snapped too early or late. To his left, there are blurbs from USA Today, Entrepreneur, Bloomberg Businessweek and Forbes. The trick he’s doing on the front cover used to be called a Mayday, but in recent years the proper name has given way to a more technical description, so you’ll most often hear it referred to as a “pivot-to-fakie” or a “5-O-to-fakie.” If memory serves, Hawk invented it in the late eighties. In at least one magazine interview around that time, he described it as the most difficult trick in his arsenal. (Note: Starting in the early eighties, Hawk dominated ramp skating in ways that would be literally impossible to overemphasize. I’m not merely talking about his success in contests, although until he retired in 1999 he was all-but unbeatable, but rather I’m referring to the extent that his innovation and abilities consistently eclipsed those of his peers. To watch him skate was, and to a degree still is, to gaze into a widening chasm between skateboarding’s present and past. Whenever he dropped in on a ramp, the accepted boundaries of the sport were in a thrilling, beautiful flux.) Whether Hawk suggested the pivot-to-fakie for the book’s cover or whether it was simply the most appealing image from the photo shoot hardly matters. What matters is the subtext of using a pivot-to-fakie as opposed to, say, an any number of aerials, and by this I mean what matters is what the trick represents, and what the trick represents is, in a phrase, the dismantling of disbelief, which has pretty much always been Hawk’s bread and butter.

Fakie translates to “backwards.” As in, when you put your car in reverse, you’re going “to fakie.” A pivot is where the skater ascends the ramp rolling forward, then stalls/balances on his rear truck (the axle between the back two wheels) at the top of the ramp and turns or “pivots” 180 degrees so that he re-enters the ramp rolling forward. For years, the trick seemed as unchangeable as the flow of a river. And then, naturally, Hawk saw an opportunity to seize. Instead of pivoting 180 degrees, he stalled at about 90 degrees and then reversed his momentum to re-enter the ramp backwards. The effect is identical to watching a video of a skater starting an axle pivot, then pausing the image halfway through the maneuver, then hitting rewind. If you weren’t a skateboarder, the move looked boring and easy, hardly a trick at all; in fact, it looked like an aborted trick, as if he’d lost his nerve in the middle and retreated back the way he’d come. If you were a skater, you saw the physics of what he did as revelatory and game changing and staggeringly ballsy. More specifically, if you were a young skateboarder in South Texas, a curly-haired kid who was already totally used to reading about various unbelievable things Tony Hawk had done on his skateboard, and then one day you were to read a description of a Mayday in a skate magazine, it’s the kind of thing you would understandably think was a misprint. It’s the kind of thing you’d call your skate buddies and ask them to verify and even their corroboration wouldn’t convince you. It’s the kind of thing you would actually need to see someone else do before you believed it was possible. And it’s that need to see someone else first do something that epitomizes the defining difference between most everyone and Tony Hawk; however, if would-be CEOs are looking to How Did I Get Here? The Ascent of an Unlikely CEO for strategies to overcome that defining difference, they should first try their hands at rerouting the flow of a river.

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ABOUT THE CONTENT AND STYLE OF
HOW DID I GET HERE?
THE ASCENT OF AN UNLIKELY CEO

Aside from the required reading of a few economics classes, I’ve not read much in the way of business literature. I suspect, however, that a good deal of what How Did I Get Here? covers is pretty standard for the genre: brand management, maintaining a core, surrounding yourself with reliable and reliably brilliant teams, the value of bad decisions, trusting your gut, taking risks, jotting ideas on napkins, loving what you do (both vocationally and avocationally), creating a platform, nurturing connections/networking, learning to identify and capitalize upon a market’s unmet needs, time allocation, being in the right place at the right time (part luck, part preparation), confidence, resilience, setting and meeting goals, spotting trends, embracing new media, etc. Throughout the book, skateboarding provides the narrative arc and serves as a touchstone and metaphor (most specifically and successfully, Hawk’s experience with the 900) for entrepreneurial lessons. His narrative voice is shot through with a skater-y reserve, an ironic and often winning self-deprecation that seems simultaneously genuine and marshaled to withstand accusations of his having “sold out.” (More on this soon, but suffice it to say, being called a sell-out in the skateboarding community is not unlike being called a heretic in an order of cloistered nuns.) The book has 16 glossy pages of color photos, numerous black and white photos, snappy chapter titles and often alliterative section headers, a clever admonition to “never make lists” that is directly followed by a list of tips for success, and various reprints of actual—funny, touching, incendiary—correspondence Hawk has received since establishing his website. Here are a few of the more choice ones, excerpted and italicized but unchanged in syntax, spelling, usage, and capitalization:

TONY HAWK HAS REALLY HIT A NEW F*%KING LOW. I WAS AT WALLY WORLD TODAY BUYING TOOTHPASTE, AND THERE THEY WERE—A WHOLE SHELF OF JUNK TONY HAWK SKATEBOARDS. COME ON TONY, LIKE YOU DON’T MAKE ENOUGH MONEY—NOW YOU GOTTA SELL JUNK SKATEBOARDS AT WAL-MART? SO MUCH FOR YOUR INTEGRITY. GO F*%K YOURSELF AND YOUR 900.

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Dear Tony,
Your videogame is great, but you should try skateboarding. I mean I know you are good in the game, but you should try it in real life. I bet you would be pretty good.

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Hi Tony:
My roommate is a very talented film student. Your stupid video game ruined his life. He locked himself in his room for two weeks and would not leave until he beat the game, and as a result he failed out of college. We’re wondering if you’d pick up his share of the rent?

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… I try my balls off to learn new tricks, but I can’t get my ollies high enough. Can you send me some tips? I’m tired of being an outcast with no talents.

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Dear Tony Hawk,
Were you high when you were on, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”

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A SWIFT AND SLY PIECE
OF POLITICAL COMMENTARY FROM
HOW DID I GET HERE?
THE ASCENT OF AN UNLIKELY CEO

Hawk was invited to the White House by President Obama to take part in a Father’s Day ceremony with other athletes who worked with children. When he did his Manual in the foyer, he had permission from White House security, but after he tweeted the picture of the trick, he caught a lot of flak from right-wing bloggers who wrote he’d “desecrated a sacred national monument.”

Hawk responds, “The bloggers… apparently forgot, or conveniently ignored, the fact that President George W. Bush used to go bowling in the same building.”

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RE: THE 900

Put it this way: there’s a half-hour documentary devoted solely to the 900 that runs on ESPN2. Put it this way: more than a decade later, there are exactly four people who have ever done 900s, and only one other skater can land them with any regularity. Put it this way: in How Did I Get Here? The Ascent of an Unlikely CEO, Hawk asserts that it was the 900 that granted him access to the culture at large.

He’d been chasing the trick for at least a decade. Most skaters thought it was physically impossible, requiring too much torque or height or velocity or all three, and thus if someone ever put one down with his feet still on the board, his body would have been spinning on such an awkward axis that he would, at best, experience a devastating inertia and thus promptly wreck himself in the ramp’s flat bottom. It’d happened to Hawk years earlier. He broke a few ribs. But then, at the Best Trick Contest at the X Games in 1999, Hawk started spotting the landing in a way he never had before. His peers, out of reverence, stopped skating and surrendered the ramp to him. Because Hawk was getting on top of the trick with such consistency, he told himself he was either riding away from it or going to the hospital. When he eventually landed it, the competition clock had expired, so technically speaking, the trick didn’t count. Practically speaking, the trick had seismic implications that are still being felt today. I saw it on CNN late on the night it happened. The camera zoomed in on him as he rode away, his mouth agape and his eyes dilated and his hands raised in shock and ecstasy. He doesn’t look like someone who’s found religion; he looks like someone who’s found divinity. I am not overstating this. YouTube it.

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THREE TONY HAWK TWEETS
THAT BEAR REPRINTING FROM
HOW DID I GET HERE?
THE ASCENT OF AN UNLIKELY CEO

Me to my ultra-finicky 11-yr-old: “What would it take to try new food?” Him: “What can I ask for?” Me: “Whatever.” Him: “Half of California.”

Dear media outlets and event organizers: I am not your link to Shaun White. He will not magically appear in my presence. Sincerely, Tony

Kid at skatepark: “You met my grandma Karen one time! Do you remember her?” Me: “Not exactly, sorry.” Him: “Was she wearing a pink shirt?”

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A READYMADE, TRUE,
AND SUFFICIENTLY PITHY
BLURB THAT COULD BE
USED ON THE PAPERBACK OF
HOW DID I GET HERE?
THE ASCENT OF AN UNLIKELY CEO

“Hawk’s ideas, experiences, and clear-eyed insights transcend the world of skateboarding and serve as a model for success in every business venture. From the boardroom to the board shop, the book provides an entertaining and invaluable perspective on how to make profits soar. A ripping read!”
— Bret Anthony Johnston

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AN INCOMPLETE REFUTATION OF THE NOTION OF HAWK’S HAVING SOLD OUT

In How Did I Get Here? The Ascent of an Unlikely CEO, Hawk readily admits that he’s wealthy and his wealth has come from skateboarding and skateboarding-related enterprises. And, to exactly no one’s surprise, his success has been accompanied by ubiquitous charges of selling out. To wit, another letter:

Dear Tony Hawk,
If I offered you a million dollars, would you endorse my new dildo?+ I bet you would.

(+ If one were so inclined, one could subject the letter to an analytical close reading. For example, why write “… my new dildo” instead of, say, “… my new line of dildos?” Or, “my new dildo company?” Doesn’t the current phrasing suggest that the dildo in question is for the writer’s personal use? And doesn’t it beg the question of what happened to the previous dildo that necessitated the acquisition of the “new” one?)

And yet for all of his irony, distance, and self-effacing humor in How Did I Get Here?, Hawk seems kind of wounded by the allegations, and to the extent that the book is primer for would-be CEOs, it also reads like something of a chagrinned defense. The prose betrays his innocence and his deep, sustained dedication to the act and culture of skateboarding. (Note: Someone should research how often the charges of Hawk’s having sold out are hurled by skaters who are, at the moment of said hurling, taking advantage of one of the 347 free skateparks his Foundation has helped to build. And then someone should explain to those skaters a thing or two about self-aggrandizing narcissistic entitlement and the hollow transparency of unenlightened martyrdom.) But what Hawk is too polite to say, or maybe what he’s blind to in ways that are not unrelated to his noticing how you could take an axle pivot to fakie, is that he has never once satisfied the fundamental requirement of selling out: compromise. He hasn’t placed profit before skateboarding progression; he hasn’t allowed gobs of money and unlikely corporate partnerships and onslaughts of media attention to temper his enthusiasm for or commitment to or love of skateboarding; he hasn’t cultivated a lowbrow public persona that conforms to and perpetuates the culture’s misconceptions that skaters are directionless derelicts; neither has he, and this is awfully significant, stopped taking unbelievably hard and damaging falls, nor have, and this is even more significant, those unbelievably hard and damaging falls kept him from getting back on his board. Which is to say, if we define selling out as moving from a true and pure plane of existence to a more profitable and (thus) less authentic one, then don’t the assertions against Hawk collapse under the weight of, you know, his continuing to skate with such frequency and enjoyment and sheer unpolluted fucking intensity despite his having accrued the aforementioned gobs of money?

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POSSIBLE WAYS TO
END A REVIEW OF
HOW DID I GET HERE?
THE ASCENT OF AN UNLIKELY CEO

If the review is disjointed or sardonic, it might be cool to end on an emotional high note, maybe discuss Hawk’s trip to Sierra Leone and what he’s done with the Sport for Good Foundation and the Right to Play program, which works with traumatized youth in West Africa. Maybe include how when they saw him skate—on the grounds of a demolished school, a venue whose symbolism should not be ignored—they called it “roller boogie.” Or, maybe touch on the non-selling-out thing again with the anecdote about his awkward dinner with Tom Cruise (and the extremely suspect lovey-dovey phone call from Cruise’s “wife”), or how Hawk passed on having any part in the silly and gross skateboard movie Grind because he knew it would be silly and gross. Or, maybe go more personal and cop to my admiration for him and what he continues to do for skateboarding, like for instance how skateboarding now boasts more participants than Little League and how I would argue that this spike in participation has tons to do with Hawk’s ambassadorship, and thus the indefensible subjectivity of any review I would write. Or, maybe go still more personal, and just flat out say how on that very late night, in South Texas, when I saw the footage of him doing the 900 on CNN, I was only awake because I was marooned in one of the darkest and shittiest and most difficult patches of my life, and how watching him ride away brought tears to my eyes, and then I was kind of unexpectedly and inconsolably weeping, and no it wasn’t at all because of the 900, but the 900 had been the thing that pierced the surface that so desperately needed to be pierced. Or maybe that’s too much because the review is about How Did I Get Here? The Ascent of an Unlikely CEO and not at all about me. So maybe another dildo joke. Or maybe there’s something to be made about how pivots-to-fakie and 900s and running successful businesses and crossing into the cultural consciousness are really all the same trick, and the trick has everything to do with authenticity and passion and drive and conviction and imagination. Or maybe just end with another excerpted letter like the one that read …MY OLDER BROTHER IS THE REAL TONY HAWK FAN. I’M MORE INTERESTED IN INSECTS, or the one that read Dear Tony Hawk, I’m in the sixth grade… Do you get paid for being a pro? If so, what is your salary per year? Yes, maybe that’s where this thing is meant to end.