Notice the grace, the artistry, the purity of form and line…
Last weekend I laced up a pair of rental skates and ventured tentatively onto the slick surface of an ice rink for only the third time in my life. It was an impulsive decision, brought about by our attendance at eldest daughter Amber’s synchronized skating team banquet. There was a lull in the proceedings after dinner and awards, with an hour of open ice before the broom ball activity anticipated by youngest daughter Melinda. What to do until then? No one was interested in skating, until I jokingly suggested that I might give it a try. Then the whole family was interested.
“Oh! Dad! You should do it! You should! If you go skating, I will seriously get on the ice with you,” vowed Melinda. I had painted myself into a corner with my careless talk, and now I saw only one honorable way out. The burden of rescuing my family from an hour of boredom was on my shoulders. If I refused to hit the ice, I would be a hopelessly dull, stick-in-the-mud dad who would have to endure our children’s complaints of ennui and potential sibling bickering. But if only I gave it a try, we would all be entertained for awhile, and I’d be hailed as a heroically Fun Dad. If I didn’t break anything, that is.
Ice skating is about as natural to me as extracting oxygen from water with gills. Had I the opportunity to develop the necessary skills as a child, perhaps things would have turned out differently, but as it happened, I never put on a pair of blades until I was eighteen. Just as learning a foreign language is more taxing to the mature mind, so is gliding gracefully across the ice a greater challenge for the adult body. All of the vital neural connections between body and mind are already set in their ways, and reprogramming oneself to acquire the requisite motions has all the success potential of a Microsoft operating system upgrade. Better to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. That first painfully slow lap around a rink saw me hunched over like a showbiz chimp, and only the firm grip of an understanding college friend kept me from smacking my knees on the ice.
I wouldn’t attempt ice skating again for more than ten years. My wife and I took our two very young daughters to a December display of holiday lights at the zoo. The festive mood was heightened by the presence of hot chocolate vendors, kiosks selling roasted chestnuts, and a miniature ice rink constructed within an open-air pavilion. Accompanying my family on the ice seemed like the responsible and sporting thing to do, but I was dismayed to find that skating was just as challenging for me as it had been the first time. In fact, it was just a bit worse, as I was already noticing the subtle decline in agility that a decade of adulthood will bring. I valiantly clung to the boards and made a mental note for future reference: Remember that you can’t ice skate.
If there is irony to be found in my incompetence, it rests in the fact that I am the father of a proficient figure skater. Amber makes spins and jumps look as effortless as walking. Simply moving along the ice is automatic for her, and I have little doubt that she could simultaneously eat dinner, read a novel, send text messages and do laps around the rink if she so desired. As for me, staying upright on skates requires my full concentration.
So as I wobbled along on my tightly-laced rentals toward a third encounter with ice skating in as many decades, it was not without well-founded trepidation. I disliked the amount of play at my ankles, as I would have preferred to completely immobilize the joint, leaving one less variable open to failure. Others trotted confidently before me and zipped onto the ice in one fluid motion, while I cautiously gripped a railing so as to firmly establish verticality before daring linear progress. One thing at a time, you know. Having assured myself that I was not in imminent danger of falling, I set about trying to move forward.
Now older and wiser, and with the spacious luxury of an uncrowded rink, I was able to be a little more analytical about the challenge. I extended my arms outward for balance and pushed off, trying to build and preserve momentum while maintaining a straight course. Soon I realized that I was experiencing much the same annoyance and frustration that must hinder babies as they learn to walk. Just how is all of this supposed to work, anyway?! Accomplished movers take a good deal for granted, but there is a whole lot going on that means all the difference between successfully getting from here to there and the humiliation of falling flat.
For example, there is a sweet spot of skate alignment, wherein the blades are held vertical and kept at a parallel distance. This ensures straight coasting and maximum conservation of momentum. I found it a difficult position to consistently maintain, especially since I had to keep disturbing my alignment by making alternating propulsions forward. That required me to stay balanced on one foot while the other pushed off at an angle, and then I had to do it the other way around, and back it forth it went. Which brings up timing, another crucial element that came to my attention. And it also helps to relax, as one’s feet will soon ache when kept in a tense grip against the boot sole.
By paying close attention to these details and through a series of diminishing errors and overcorrections, it wasn’t too long before I won the admiration of my wife and daughters, who had wondered whether I would be able to do more than stand. Hey, look at Dad! He’s actually skating! And so I was, though precariously. I would relax enough to set a steady pace and build up some speed, but then a small wobble would be enough to set my arms flailing. That combined with no practical knowledge of how to stop made me a bit dangerous. But sure enough, I was skating better than ever.
As I attempted small refinements in propulsion, timing and alignment, I had an important revelation that gave me some insight into my failure as an ice skater. Each time I’ve stepped out onto the ice, I have brought with me a lifetime of overpronation. That is, my feet roll far too inward when I walk. It’s not too much of a problem under ordinary walking conditions, though it’s bad enough that I use motion-control shoes when I run. On the ice, it’s problematic. I think I’m standing up straight, but my feet are inclined toward each other. When I force them into a position such that my blades are plumb to the ice, it feels like my feet are splayed outward. You can imagine how difficult this makes it to skate. What I really need is a pair of motion-control ice skates, with the blades moved in about a quarter of an inch.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for the puzzling allure of clumsiness. We would like to be good at everything, yet we are sometimes endearing in our awkward failures. I’ve learned to never discount the charming potential of my ineptitude, as I’ve profited from it in one major way. That understanding college student who held my hand as I braved the ice for the first time? We’ll have been married for 20 years in June. We were both too shy to get that close under any other circumstances. But there’s nothing like a chimp on skates to break the ice.