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Who Is Thrashin’ Jack?

AnnL asks Jeff the above question in this week’s Ask Jeff. Here is his response…

Ask Jeff: Philosopher Jeff Stilwell explains who Thrashin' Jack.

Thrashin’ Jack is my go to guy.  Adorable, cheerful, daring, whimsical. Also impulsive and impetuous, Thrashin’ Jack is always getting himself into trouble. If he is my alter ego in any way, it would have to be expressed via this last characteristic.

In the months – nay, years, I realize now – in the runup to writing Here and Now, Thrashin’ Jack came to mind as the adventurer who would carouse the pages of my work, making light of ideas that came across as heavy, finding simplicity amidst the complex, and poking holes in any windbags of pompous arrogance that all too often seem to show up in writings about spirituality.

Fair enough. But why a skateboarder?

Believe it or not, skateboarding strikes me as an international symbol, one of the first. I realized that when I was living in Taiwan. I was sitting in an average office one day – everything Chinese inside just as there was everything Chinese outside. Except for one thing.  I looked out the window and saw a boy crashing his skateboard in the parking lot. I burst out laughing, wondering what the hell a skateboard was doing in China.

It immediately sparked the memory of my own flirtation with thrashing at our local Cathedral of Christ the King – built on what passed for a hill – in my hometown. All the thrashers (ie skateboarders) used to gather on the south side of the cathedral to practice our ollies, pop shove its and other thrashing moves. It was our skatepark, a decade before anyone thought up the term.

Of course, being that my family always struggled for money, I had brought with me a very old, wide, wood, and (key) heavy skateboard that I think I had dug up at St. Vincent de Paul’s or some other second hand store. The other kids, however, sported new, flashy, narrow, plastic and (key) very light skateboards. They even had these really cool decals on their boards. I felt so out of place.

Needless to say, in that heartwarming way that children have, they quickly laughed me into utter humiliation. As I recall, I never went back.

Even so, I never forgot my fascination with thrashing.

Thus, decades later, when I was casting about for a cartoon character to express myself artistically, Thrashin’ Jack was born.

Now, those aspiring to become illustrators might be surprised to learn that I am largely self-taught.  Indeed, my eighth grade art class taught me not to draw – both because of the teacher’s evident disinterest in the subject and Sandy, the truly enthralling girl sitting next to me. No, the first drawing in earnest of my life came from, unsurprisingly, a challenge of Manya’s. I had followed her to Java with an engagement ring in my pocket that she did not know about, but which made things a bit, well, tense between us. One day, in exasperation, she handed me a sketchpad saying, “The town is surrounded by temples. Choose one and draw what you see.” I did.

Years later, for lack of anything else to do after experiencing a rather severe disappointment in theatre, I again took up illustration. My comics were carried for a while in a local paper. Inevitably, I made a number of truly awful rookie mistakes. My character was named Bosatsu – the Japanese term for bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint (huh?) – his t-shirt had the Hindu character Om on it – sometimes I used Chinese characters for Taoist concepts in the comics – all the while blithely expecting my Pacific Northwest audience to somehow enjoy such details. (They didn’t.)

Nevertheless, it was a start. All in all, one can readily see that Bosatsu bears a striking resemblance to Thrashin’ Jack.

Who is Thrashin' Jack - here is an earlier incarnation when I called him "Bosatsu."

Over time, I learned to listen to my readers more. I kept my core concepts, but I made them much more approachable.

For example, the Om symbol gave way to a planet with a moon encircling it, or maybe it is a stylized Saturn with a simple ring. Does it matter? I learned that it truly doesn’t, as readers get the point, anyway, that it celebrates something beyond our pale blue dot.

His eyes, ears, and shoes got a lot cuter. His helmet grew rounder, therefore, more pleasing to the eye. His erstwhile companions, a cat and a bird, gave way to a far more rambunctious ginger tabby named Lotus (inspired by our athletic troublemaker at home). I created my own font, called ThrashinJack, of course. (Email me if you’d like a copy to install on your computer.)

Even his skateboard changed. Gone was the pompous Yin Yang symbol – expressing an essential duality to the universe – replaced with a simple ice cream cone. Yes, there is a melting drop on it, of course, noting the brevity of time. But the message was far less complex – in essence, don’t waste this lifetime since it’s all you get.

In short, Thrashin’ Jack was a lot more fun.

(For example, what flavor ice cream do you suppose it is? Well, it’s your favorite, of course. If you ask mine, I go back and forth between mint chocolate chip and rocky road. Ice cream cognoscenti take for granted that mint chocolate chip, originally named Mint Royale, was invented by a culinary student and presented to the royals during Princess Anne’s wedding in the 70s – and that Rocky Road is a child of the Great Depression, marketed a nickel at a time as an escape from the economic difficulties of that era. Yes, those who take their ice cream seriously know this. Others just adore eating it.)

Who is Thrashin' Jack? An adorable skateboarding adventurer invented by philosopher Jeff Stilwell

And it is that fun at the heart of Thrashin’ Jack that makes such an ideal companion for me as I plumb the deep concepts of my mind, my soul, and present them to the world. Hopefully in a whimsical manner. I hope you agree.

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