Thursday, March 18, 2010

yo-yo #'s 74 & 75: sleep machines

in 1992, when the sleep machine was first launched by tom kuhn's small san fransisco yo-yo workshop, i was still a kid. i was a huge fan of the sf giants (and specifically of will clark, having collected over 300 of his baseball cards). it was a time when you could get away with wearing wind-pants (or worse, Zubas©) to school, when you had to wait until saturday morning for 'good' cartoons, and when toys still felt like toys.

the 2nd production ball bearing yo-yo, the sleep machine (and its imperial-shaped counterpart, the roller woody) was an anomaly from its conception. it's fascinating to consider the yo-yo landscape of that era. the silver bullet and sb-2 were the only aluminum models. with the exception of the yomega brain (and fireball?), there were no plastic transaxles to be had. it was an era when every good yo-yo player out there still relied on a wooden, fixed axle models, not to be stoic, but because they were the best tools available. even the sb-2 was perceived by the elite as a bizarre novelty and mediocre player (on account of its inconsistent looping ability and slippy response).

tom kuhn created the sleep machine and roller woody in order to bring performance 'guts' into a more acceptable wooden 'package'. while it features the same axle and [brilliant] gap adjustment tool as the sb-2, its maple body is extremely delicate and prone to cracking when overtightened. the bearing is tiny by comparison with today's models (which would have seemed ridiculously gargantuan 18 years ago), but amazingly, a stock sleep machine can handle pretty much anything you want to throw at it. they featured linen 'turbo discs', which were the first friction stickers, as the bearing necessitated some means to compensate with the lack of response (the yo-yo actually comes complete with instructions for double looping the string... pad printed on its inner walls!)

yesterday, i read a question posed to the boards that i've considered many times: 'are ball bearings cheating?'

this question has been debated so hotly over the years of internet-yoyo-blathering that i find it remarkable whenever i read it, as if we should have reached some consensus and moved on. some of the first posts on the oldest yo-yo forum,, are dedicated to the argument that the only 'real' yo-yoing is fixed axle yo-yoing.

i no longer believe that (i did once), and i doubt the original participants do either. i learned trapeze on an old fixed axle (again, not because i was hardcore, but because it was all i had), and i remember at the time feeling as though the idea of going 'beyond' the technicality of that trick would have amounted to a pipe-dream with extra grandeur. the first time i threw a raider (see below), i easily doubled my longest sleeper ever. a few throws later i tried my hardest trick, braintwister, and i think i did about 8 revolutions (having never done more than 1), laughing with my head thrown back as though riding a convertible on the autobahn.

after those initial tricks, i felt a little dirty. i felt like i was playing contra, having already punched in the konami code. i knew i didn't 'deserve' a minute-long sleeper or the ability to pause 10 seconds just to 'admire' trapeze. these new-found powers had been paid for by technological ideas not-my-own... but the question of 'just how far can i take this?' is a seductive temptress... and it should be.

besides, who am i cheating? 90% of the time, when i'm yo-yoing, it's just me and the yo-yo. am i cheating the yo-yo? i don't think it cares, or at least, it's never spoken up. am i cheating myself? even if i grind harder than ever to push the range of what i can do with a bearing? can a person who works at yo-yoing for 8 hours a day be cheating, regardless of the materials they use? there's no one else to cheat. i've never really been a competitive player, and even if i were, from as far back as 1995 on, transaxle players were prevented from playing in the same division as fixed axle players. in the aforementioned conversation, kyle weems said 'cheating implies that you have an unfair advantage'... so if there's no implied advantage?

the question is not really whether or not ball bearings are 'cheating', but rather whether or not they are 'destructive'. certainly they have catalyzed a dramatic mutation in the way we approach our play. if you took your yo-yo back in time 40 years, it would probably be only vaguely understood as yo-yoing at all. if those changes are understood to be 'bad', then ball bearings have pulled us in a negative direction (or rather, we have allowed them to).

ball bearings have allowed yo-yoers to go from zero to sixty in an instant (both literally and figuratively). i read another post the other day, asking for how long people had played. inevitably, the responses (most of which betrayed obvious youth) were along the lines of 'eight months - i'm on master.' don't get me wrong - i appreciate the importance of BELIEVING yourself to be approaching mastery, and the tendency to do so while growing up. investing in such a belief, however, which ball bearing yo-yo's allow for... could be seen as a means of cheating oneself, and the inevitable let-down once one sheds the delusion can be devastating.

i think everyone has known some incorrigable, hey-kid-get-off-the-lawn curmudgeon who wants to regale you with stories of walking eight miles to school in the snow (uphill, both ways). they've read 'the greatest generation' 6 times (12, counting the audiobook), and they remember wistfully when america felt self-sufficient and a force for good, rather than a gradually-devolving series of strip malls and strip joints. those are the kinds of guys whom you'd expect to tell you that playing your ball bearing yo-yo makes you less of a man; that its complacent, benevolent technology allows you to 'get away' with shenanigans for which you 'deserve' to be whacked about the knuckles.

i buy part of that. i do. in some respects, i've become the 'get-off-the-lawn' guy... but only ever to myself (i hope), and i think that's the way it should be. i think you should be your harshest critic... and also your most fervent supporter. i wouldn't pay any mind to some snot-nosed kid betting me i can't hit 'trick x' on my no jive... but do i pay mind when I say it? you bet. likewise, i don't go around criticizing people for the way they play, because i expect them to do that for themselves.

i don't believe that yo-yoing is dying some overbloated, decadent death, drowning in the warm milky bliss that bearings offer. i don't think we've been seduced by the 'dark side' that some of us assumed the technology would come to represent. i'm not sure how anyone could watch john ando or guy wright and claim that we're headed in the wrong direction. yo-yoing is ever on the move, and it really always has been. it hit us 'old folks' hard when bearings became ubiquitous, because it was a technological lightning bolt that revealed all of our assumptions (and many of our treasured skills) to be outmoded in its instantaneous flash. the field of play was warped, and suddenly creativity was rewarded ahead of effort and persistence. collectively, we're still working out how to cope with that upheaval.

you can look at essentially every technological development in our history. the printing press, the automobile... the sham-wow. if you want to experience the joy of a quill tracing across paper, then a movable-type printing press is not cheating... it's ineffective; superfluous. if you want to hike the appalachian trail, you will not feel 'slow' for not being in a car. if you crave the tone of a martin acoustic, a stratocaster just will not do. the only dissonance enters when you don't fully understand what you intend or mean.

i play wood axle yo-yo's an awful lot, and sometimes people ask me why i'm on spyy. i should think it's obvious. dynamic as it is, every attempt to grasp yo-yoing and pin it down is doomed to fail. because it is linked to our creative human spirit, there will always be a new direction in which to go; a new technology to employ and explore. sometimes, i want to experience cotton and wood sliding against each other (a sensation the like of which i have found no where else). sometimes, i want the yo-yo and string to 'get out of the way', allowing me to explore obscure and complex ideas. each perspective informs the other. neither is wrong. neither is destructive. neither is cheating.

i've said it before - yoyoing is an art. and try though you might, you really can't cheat at art, for which the subversion of our most cleverly-devised rules is an inherent proclivity. you might succeed in conning yourself occasionally, but that is pathetic rather than shameful or devious. by all means though, break those rules which you perceive. TRY to cheat... you might just inspire the next great mutation.


Justin Chatham said...

You know, that robot looks awfully familiar...

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Anonymous said...

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