Monday, March 05, 2007

Balance

[Note: This post doesn't have anything to do with the NHL or the Canadiens or even with the Theory. There's been a long break between games for the Habs, and in case you've missed it, the Montreal media has been finding some very creative ways to while away the long hours. I, on the other hand, have been trying to find things to take my mind off the latest melodramatic feeding frenzy, so I decided to try a more bloggy style of semi-pointless personal rambling. A couple of readers have asked about how my process of learning to play hockey has been going, and the fact is it hasn't really been going anywhere, but I figured I'd talk a little about learning to skate, which is more or less the first step. Or, at least, I hope it is.]


It’s 12:53. I’ve been watching the minute hand creep its slow circle for fifteen minutes now, and every second is longer than the one before. I’m getting irritated and it feels like pins in my back, I can’t sit still, I have to move. The room is too small, the walls too beige, the final desultory questions that run down the time are sheer repetition. My colleagues look nearly catatonic, staring blankly at pads of yellow paper or out the window. I’m fingering the straps of my bag, and pointedly, rudely staring at the clock. I don’t care. I have to get out of here.

G finishes with his final comments and I am out the door before he’s even set down his notes, sweeping up my things and gone before anyone has time to ask me anything- no gossiping or chatter, no lunch invitations. I shrug my coat on while rushing down the stairs and trying to decide where to go, but the second I get outside the wind hits me and the decision is made: has to be indoors on a day like this.

I go skating nearly every day now. Two months ago I would have said there was no time in my life for such things, for like most North Americans I am chronically and compulsively busy, but somehow, I make the time. I dig an hour, sometimes two, sometimes more out of some part of my day- a rushed lunch, a rescheduled meeting, a deliberately skipped lecture- "So sorry, I can’t make it this time, something personal came up". I carry my skates through the day in a nondescript bag, although most days I don’t know when I’ll be able to get away, I’m certain that I will eventually. And the second I can, I do.

I run to the rink, totally oblivious to the lunchtime crowd.

***

The first time I went skating, I sucked. It was terrible. Partly, I suppose, I brought it on myself, because I was absolutely determined not to accept any physical support or assistance. And so I fell. A lot. Over and over and over again. S, my hockey-friend, came with me the first time to ‘help’, but as someone who simply has known how to skate as long as he can remember, he was totally unable to explain anything. “See, all you really have to do is shift your weight like this…” But I had not the slightest clue what he was trying to say, all I knew was that he would do something and slide along elegantly, and I would try to do the exact same thing and crash in a awkward jumble on the ice. It felt unnatural, too much gravity and not enough friction, too many urgent forces competing for my attention. I could barely even stand, and move only stiffly, like a doll with too few joints. My most vivid memory is sitting on the ice, S shooting past me saying, “Good fall! You took that one really well!” in his most encouraging voice, and a second later, a pair of twenty-something guys with perfect strides going by. “That girl,” says one, jerking his head in my direction, “has been wiping out all night.”

S says it’s all about balance. Great, I think, because if there’s one thing I don’t have these days, it’s balance.

The truth is I haven’t felt balanced since I fell in love with hockey. Hockey comes to me as something of highs and lows, thrills and horrors, always stubbornly disharmonious. Everything about it is contradiction and conflict. Hockey ties me up in knots, all the time, for as much as I love it, there are moments when I hate it too. There are moments when it inspires and excites me, but there are also moments when it scares me, as much as anything I have ever known human beings to do. Hockey runs hot and cold, burns dark and bright as game hurtles into game through the season. The entire sport is nothing but a microfine wire stretched between the perfect play that is as rich an aesthetic experience as any art yet invented and that rare but terrible collision where limbs fly and the arena shakes and afterwards the ice is pink and someone isn’t moving. Things that enchant and things that horrify, and even stranger, the thousand ordinary game events that sit on the spectrum between them, the fact that it’s never one or the other, but a game of percentages: that hit was 70% amazing and 30% disgusting, or maybe 30% amazing and 70% disgusting for the fans in the other color jerseys. There are days when I wonder how any human being with a soul could not be drawn to this game, and then there are days when I wonder how anyone with a heart can bear to watch it. There are moments when hockey shoots through me like an electric-white flash and moments when it sits like a cold stone at the bottom of my stomach. And I don’t know yet how to deal with that tension, that constant stretching between ineffable grace and abject brutality that permeates every single fucking game, and the fact that the sport doesn’t just hover neatly between the poles but rather ricochets haphazardly back and forth between them, constantly bending one way or the other, such that I feel as though it is on the verge of snapping into two completely different games: ice dancing and gladiatorial combat, neither of which I want to watch. The only thing that keeps the thread intact is our sheer collective will that the game be both of these partially and neither completely. And so it continues, night after night, in a sort of Hegelian waltz that would be tedious if only it wasn’t so seductive.

I don’t know how long-term fans make their peace with it. I don’t understand how they can carry their love for the game so casually, so lightly, as though it were something simple and obvious and uncomplicated, badminton or lawn bowling. I talk to real hockey fans, the people who’ve grown up with the sport, and it’s not that they don’t see the contradictions and the contestations, the moral and aesthetic quandaries of the game- they do. But they have somehow found that balance which eludes me, a way of being comfortable with the wildness of it. It’s not a perfect comfort, more of a negotiated settlement, and it seems to be a little different for everyone, but they all seem to have found their natural place in relationship to the game, their own good-enough harmony with it.

But I’m not content with a negotiated settlement. I have to understand, not just partially but perfectly, completely, fully and honestly. This is who I am. I understand things. If I do not understand something it is only because I have not really tried. Things do not elude me, they do not confuse me. Yes, it is terrifically arrogant for me to say this, but it is also a professional commitment I have chosen: to believe that everything can and should be pulled apart and minutely examined in all its constituent parts, then reassembled and represented as a fully illuminated object. It’s a form of unforgivable possessiveness. I will not let something capture me that I cannot capture back, hockey cannot be allowed to have a stronger hold on me than I have on it, I will not be seduced uncomprehendingly by some silly sport. If I cannot explain, define and defend the attraction than it cannot exist. People will say, this is the essence of love, to be captivated and controlled by something you cannot understand, but that’s not my love. I’m not mature enough for that kind of surrender.

But hockey resists me as few things ever have. The more I try to parse it and analyze it, the more aggressively I throw my mind against it, the more tightly it ties me up in all it’s crazy contradictions. Every time I think I get one piece, something else slips away.

***

The first thing that really hooked me on skating was exhaustion. After that first day, that went so badly, I thought I might give up and never go back, because it seemed patently obvious that at this rate I’d be 40 before I ever got to the point of being able to play hockey. I got home so drained that I threw everything off the bed and sprawled out on the broad flat square like the Vitruvian Woman, staring at the blank ceiling and thinking of absolutely nothing. I can’t remember the last time I felt that tired, not sleepy, but purely physically hollowed-out, flesh dead weight, sinking heavily and insensibly into the mattress, but nerves stubbornly alive and feeling everything; cool smooth sheets and invisible air currents raising goosebumps on my skin, the slow rush of breath in and out of my lungs, the soft ache winding around the bones in my legs like a purple silk pain-ribbon.

It wasn’t until the next morning, in the shower, examining the bruises rising on my knees and hips, that I realized it: That night, for the first time in a very, very long time, certainly for the first time since I started watching hockey, my mind had been quiet. It wasn’t serenity or tranquility or peace with anything, not a long term solution, but a gloriously effective quick fix- I had exhausted myself calm.

I went back to the rink that afternoon.

The next day I went out and bought my skates.

So at first it was really no more than an addiction, a physical solution to a psychological problem, and an escape vent for all my ambivalences and confusion about hockey in particular and maybe life in general, to keep them from intruding too aggressively on the rest of my life. Anything that worried or perplexed or upset me, from my ongoing inability to develop an adequate theory of intimidation to my pure disappointment in the Habs recent play, I’d shove it into the back of my mind and go about my ordinary business, until I could get to the rink. Then I’d let it all flood out into my head while skating, let it drive me around and around and around until the pure fatigue washed it all away and left me, if not content, at least calm.

I didn’t even realize that I was improving, until one morning when I noticed that the older bruises were fading away and no new ones were appearing in their place, and it occurred to me that I’d somehow stopped falling. And then the succession of realizations- I still wasn’t very good, but I was getting faster, smoother, and though I still came home exhausted (that’s the whole point, right?), it didn’t leave me sore and stiff any longer.

I started paying attention to other people’s skating strides, the things that looked right and looked wrong, and the beauty of the downtown indoor rink (as opposed to those in the parks closer to my apartment) is the luxury of observation. There’s such a range of people with such a range of abilities and aspirations sharing the same small space, you get a lot of opportunity to watch and think about the mechanics and styles of skating. As a person who values the aesthetics of hockey and is obviously ambivalent about its violence, I do sometimes get the whole you-just-want-to-turn-hockey-into-figure-skating criticism. The interesting thing about this is that I’ve never liked figure skating, not even a little bit. Mostly when I see it during the Olympics or something, I take it as an opportunity to make fun of silly costumes and bizarre musical selections, but I’ve never found it beautiful or emotionally moving. And I never understood why until I started going to the rink during the general skating hours and got to see figure skaters and hockey skaters- all amateurs, admittedly, but many of them very talented nonetheless- on the same ice. The fact is that figure skating seems very contrived to me. Even when done well, it is too stiff, too mannered, too posed, as though it was designed to be captured in a series of still photographs, nothing but transitions from one sculpture-like posture to another. Hockey skating, on the other hand, is raw movement. In still photos it would, and generally does, look quite silly, but that’s because the essence of it is all motion, it’s almost as if the movement is so pure as to transcend the body that’s actually moving, like the person isn’t even real, only the speed and the stride. In a game, of course, you don’t really get to watch the skating by itself much, because it’s just short bursts, and once you're used to it it’s easy to tune it out, like it’s just the game’s background noise. But when I see a person with a good hockey stride just goofing around, skating for fun, I realize how lovely it is, and remember dimly how striking and captivating it was the first time I really noticed it.

It was weeks, still, before I learned that that is the true pleasure of skating- speed for the sake of speed, motion for the sake of motion. Balance in skating is not about the harmony of forces but the effective management of the most extreme possible disharmony. You do not neatly bring together all the elements- the gravity and friction and weight, the electrical impulses in your muscles- into some perfect pristine fusion, rather you play them off against each other, the uneven power differential is what drives you forward, and the more extreme the forces, the faster you go. You don’t so much balance in any conventional sense as your body learns to trust the imbalances.

Is this what happens to all hockey fans after a while? They simply learn to trust the tensions and the contradictions of the sport? Because that’s the energy of it? Because it wouldn’t be so thrilling if it wasn’t so dangerous, it wouldn’t be beautiful if it wasn’t also ugly, it wouldn’t be dramatic if it wasn’t painful. Maybe other sports you can make peace with, lord knows badminton isn’t going to nauseate or scare me in a thousand years, but these days I think maybe no one has a peaceful, balanced relationship with hockey. They, the real hockey fans, just have more practice that I do. They’ve learned, somehow, to ride the imbalances, how to pull joy rather than anxiety out of the myriad conflicts and contradictions in the game, and as such my project is somehow different from theirs, for where I want it to make sense, they understand that it’s somehow better when it doesn’t.

***

Today S arrives later with another friend and his wife, who hasn’t come before. She steps out onto the ice tentatively, clinging to the rail, and as I go by I stop to ask if she needs any help.

“No,” she says, “It’s just been a while. I’ll remember.” She pauses, searching for some new-acquaintance small talk. “W tells me you’ve just started.”

“Yeah,” I say. “About a month ago.”

“Really?” she says. “I never would have guessed. You have such wonderful natural balance.”

I smile and thank her, but I think, oh honey, ain’t nothin’ natural about it.

4 comments:

Subversive said...

Damn, you're a good writer. Nice post.

Julian said...

Great E, I've managed to survive 3+ months now without skating, and you've just gone and shot that all to hell.

hockeygirl said...

As one who has been on the IR for too long, thank you for reminding me of the feeling of skating.

I am in awe of your writing.

the soft ache winding around the bones in my legs like a purple silk pain-ribbon.

*nods*

Kyle said...

Next step: bringing a stick with you!