Thursday, October 20, 2011

Play

Leaving my apartment at 6:30 on a Thursday evening, I feel very guilty. The Habs home opener starts in forty-five minutes, and I won’t be watching it. They’re going to flash those spotlights all around and splash projected nostalgia across the ice, and there will be kids skating around with flags and all the roster lined up one by one, and the blackness above sparked through with little flashes, like disco starlight, and a great wild roar crashing down like thunder over wind, and I’m not going to see any of it. I saw the Leafs intro, and the Jets, and the Oilers, but I’m going to miss the glorious launch of my very own team, and I could actually really use it, because truth be told I don’t remember Raphael Diaz’s number yet.

I truly meant to see every Habs game this season. Hell, it was part of the reason for coming back to this continent, to be able to watch games live in the evening like normal people. And really, how can one blog justly if one doesn’t see all the games? People who don’t see all the games are only sorta fans, they have no authority to speak on matters pertaining to the team. In the past, I have blogged only so far as I was able to watch the games, and when I haven’t been able to keep up with them, this site goes dark, for I will not talk about what I do not know. So dragging my bag down Queen, taking up far more sidewalk space than I deserve, I feel like a traitor to both my team and my writing.

My beloved old barn in Taipei had a screen wrapped across the front three stories high and half a block long that lit up the night like the Second Coming, if Jesus comes back plugging Johnny Walker and symphony tickets. This new rink is barely one story standing on its tiptoes, low and concrete with an arced roof that looks like it’s made of tinfoil. Like every building in my neighborhood, it’s sort of hunkered down and wary-looking, as though it’s hiding from bigger buildings who want to beat it up and take its lunch money. Nevertheless, I find it far more intimidating. The Taipei Xiao Ju Dan was an arena built by people who don’t play hockey for people who don’t play hockey- ice appended as an exotic novelty in a big splashy entertainment complex. It was a shiny, pretty, Olympic-size pleasure rink, softy gushy ice for Sunday families and teenagers on dates. This place, though, is a bluntly functional space, designed to do nothing more than freeze water cold enough so’s people can kick ass on it. The ice here is hard, and when my blades take a bite out of it, it feels like it bites back.

I am early, and I sneak into the dressing room with an unnecessary furtiveness. I’m officially registered for the class, so I have every right to be there, but it doesn’t feel that way. In Taipei, everybody dressed in the stands. I’ve never been in a dressing room before.

Before I start dressing, I take an inventory of my equipment. I checked it twice before I left the apartment, but I always feel like I’m missing something. Of course, I don’t have shoulder pads, but even accounting for that, there’s this vague suspicion that there’s some extra essential little bit of plastic and Velcro I’ve forgotten about. A solar-plexus guard, or a tonsil-protector. Ear flaps? Are there supposed to be ear flaps?

The other women start to filter in. They’re mostly my age, a few a little younger, some much older. They all enter looking different, hipster chicks and soccer moms, jockish girls in sweatpants and dignified ladies with gold earrings, but as we start to dress we all begin to look the same. They go about it calmly, chatting about their kids and their weekend plans, but I have to concentrate all my thought on the order of operations. It’s a very complicated process, putting on hockey equipment, and I know from experience that if you miss a step sometimes you have to go back and do it all over again, which is embarrassing under any circumstances.

At least now I can lace my own skates. I mangle my fingers in the process, but at least it gets done. Back in Taipei, I could never get them tight enough. I’d try, two or three times, and then one of the coaches would come by and just glance down and shake his head, and eventually I’d end up sitting on the bench staring down my leg at some dude, showing me how it should be done, again.

If there’s anything that sums up the way I feel about hockey practice, it’s that: hockey practice is the place where I need help putting on my own shoes.

***

It’s not that I don’t want to play. I want to play more than I want to do damn near anything. But then again, I’d also like to get in a time machine and go have tea with Shajar al-Durr (a tough lady and good with funerary architecture as well), but it ain’t gonna happen. “Oh, E,” you may say, “that’s because time travel violates the laws of the physical universe.” Well, me playing hockey pretty much violates the laws of the physical universe, or at least the laws of good taste. I’m 5’2” and 110 lbs in my winter coat, so small that most of my equipment is hand-me-downs from 14-year-olds. I have terrible depth perception, no hand-eye coordination, and poor balance. My spatial orientation is so weak I’ve been known to clip walls and lampposts while walking. I haven’t played a team sport voluntarily since the 6th grade, not because I don’t enjoy physical activity, but because I feel guilty about burdening others with my incompetence.

This isn’t a self-esteem issue. Like everyone, I have my talents, and over the past 29 years I have identified them, developed them, refined them. As the years go by, I will polish them to a fine sheen. I am already a very good teacher, a pretty good writer, and a reasonably competent wanderer, and because I am already good at those things, I will do them more and more, and get better and better, and when I die that’s the shit that will go in my obituary, because that’s the shit I can do. But nobody is ever going to call me a hockey player, because I have not one scrap of athletic ability anywhere in my whole being. There is nothing there to be developed and refined.

And so, for me, sports- along with the other things I cannot do well, like music and macramé- become a matter of taste. I do not do hockey, I like hockey. I shift the focus from active creation to passive appreciation. Do not judge me by my playing of hockey, judge me by my taste in hockey-playing.

I come from a culture of taste. Westerners, or at least Americans and by all appearances Canadians too, often define ourselves not by what we do but by what we think about things that other people do. Set up any online profile for anything, and you will be prompted to put in a list of the things you like to consume- products you buy, books you read, music you listen to. Preliminary mating rituals are, essentially, a long exchange of I-like-this, do-you-also-like-this?, with the answers determining the suitability of a potential partner. This is the sort of society where it really really really matters what your T-shirt says, because your T-shirt is a silent advertisement for your taste, and your taste is the single biggest criterion by which other people will decide whether they like you or not.

So like everybody I know, I have very developed taste in most things I cannot do, including hockey. I have very strong opinions on the proper development of prospects, and the allotment of cap space, and the drafting of goalies, and the duties of coaches, and the ethics of body checking, and because the grounds for these opinions is not my own ability but rather my taste, it doesn’t matter at all that I can hardly lace my own skates. That’s the miracle of taste- it can reach a high level of sophistication and complexity wonderful quick, which is why we are so fond of having it. Skills are slow growing things, like oaks that take a lifetime to really become themselves. Taste is more like a dandelion patch.

But refined taste breeds disdain. That’s the danger of it. We can come to appreciate some art or craft in such a precise, exacting fashion that very few examples meet our high standard. Connoisseurship can be lovely, we all enjoy a well-curated collection of stuff, but it involves not only the elevating of the extraordinary but the demeaning of every lesser thing. We come to believe that all that matters is that which is the absolute best, the highest pinnacle of the form, and there are so very few things in that category. And so we have a culture where millions of people buy the same few hundred albumns, and know the same few hundred painters, and watch the same few hundred hockey players, and anything that is even two steps down from those highest things is virtually ignored. We don’t watch ECHL hockey, unless we happen to live near it and the tickets are cheap, because it’s not good enough.

This is the real reason I avoid playing: because I am not good, and my taste cannot condone hockey that is not good. It’s not merely that I can’t shoot, can’t pass, can’t receive, can’t stop, can’t skate backwards, can’t do crossovers, can’t turn quickly, can’t stickhandle, and can’t keep my head up. It’s that I know how it should be done, all of that and more integrated seamlessly together to a level of such perfect coordination that the whole transcends the individual skills. And I know that no matter how hard I work, I will never be able to do that.

Our taste encourages us to look down on others who labor in even the middle ranges of skill, and permits us to outright mock those at the bottom levels. We feel justified in declaring that a fourth-line NHLer sucks, or that a local band is derivative, or that guy at the poetry slam is so lame. We take a perverse pleasure in shutting each other down, and eventually, we shut ourselves down. We don’t learn tenth of the skills our ancestors had- almost none of us know how to make a dress, or a pot, or a chair, or a drum, or anything at all. We couldn’t paint so much as a daisy. We don’t sing in front of anybody over four, and we don’t write poems after thirteen. Hell, we’re the sort of people who go to concerts and don’t even dance, we just line up in tight rows and nod rhythmically, indicating our mass approval of this object of shared consumption.

There is so much more to be learned in the doing than in the consuming. Consumptive pleasure is nice, but it’s seldom deeply transformative. Yeah, everyone has that one book where they’re all like, “Oh man, it changed my life,” but I bet if you had a God’s eye lens on that person at the moment of reading you’d see that they were basically the same way before as after, although perhaps with a few new ideas. There is no book in the world so good that it could change you half as much as the shitty book you write yourself.

***

Even with this rationale behind me- and it is a good rationale, I put a lot of time into it- it is still a feat of willpower to get through practice. Every time I lose the puck in my skates, every time I lose my balance going backwards, every time I miss the obviously wide open net because there is not even such a thing as a goalie in this practice, there is a part of my brain that is screaming FUCK THIS and ordering me to go home and donate my gear to some wide-eyed 14-year-old too naïve to understand that he will never be good at hockey either. I tell myself, over and over, like a mantra, like a meditation: It is better for you to sing a song than listen to one. It is better for you to write a novel than read one. It is better for you to make a shirt than buy one. It is better for you to play hockey that to watch it. But it is not such an easy thing to humble oneself, even for the good of body and soul.

Everyone is really nice, of course. Practices with the kids in Taipei were run by guys, very serious guys who learned the game from infancy and would shout ominous threats about the ‘Minnesota Mile’ at anyone who didn’t skate hard enough. This is women’s beginner hockey, though, so the ethos is much more, hey, why don’t you try it this way? Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter how nice everyone is. My only conflict is with myself.

At the end, when I am getting nearly full up with self-contempt, we scrimmage. The rink is full length but only half-width, and at 5-on-5 it’s pretty crowded, but we still make some attempt at positioning. I call left defense, and nobody argues with me. True, I still can’t skate backwards, but at least at the blue line end I don’t have to feel any responsibility for scoring. This will be the first time I have ever actually played a game. Everything before has been drills and exercises.

It is, as one would expect, an ignominious beginning. I can’t hardly even get to the puck much less do anything with it, and although I do my best to get between the opposing team and the puck, I’m more just getting in the way of everybody. At one point I race another woman after an icing (or what would have been an icing, if we had such a thing), only to realize at the last second that she’s on my team. When I do get the puck, I have a disturbing tendency to throw it out into open ice, away from whoever was chasing it but straight onto the stick of some opportunistic opponent. Ridiculous.

The practice is almost over. I am getting bone-tired in that way that only skating makes you tired and sweating from sweat glands that my body has probably never had to activate before. I am standing near the blue line of the offensive zone, trying to congratulate myself for at least being in more or less the correct place, watching my practice-mates scramble in an undifferentiated mass in front of the net. We’re like Timbits players, most of us, always a big knot around the puck, sending up a great clacking of sticks like a disorganized drum circle. There are some good players on my team, they could do some damage, if there was any space, but everybody is up in everybody else’s cage most of the time- not deliberate physicality, just clumsiness and a bit of puck-greed. The fact that I’m not in there with the rest of them has more to do with the certain knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to do anything useful down there than any selfless sense of good positioning. And then, as is wont to happen, the puck pops out of the knot of bodies, moving fast towards the neutral zone.

Would you believe it if I said that it happened in slow motion? It must have, because my reflexes are not good, but somehow, without thinking about it at all, I lean over and stretch my stick out and catch it, right before the line, and pull it in, and whack it to the boards and back in deep, just before the herd reaches me. And one of my teammates, some girl in a white jersey, catches it and lets out an excited whoop, and wraps it around the back of the net, and if the instructor hadn’t been playing amateur netminder and caught it with the toe of her skate, it totally would have gone in.

It was the absolute easiest, most basic, simplest play ever, but HOLY SHIT I DID IT, and I did it right, and it was good. It was good enough to almost be an assist.

It was the most awesome thing I have ever done. For about three seconds, I was a hockey player.

Back in Montreal, the Canadiens are losing, and for the first time in five years, I don’t care. The Canadiens have had thousands of games and are going to have thousands more. I’ve only had one, and it’s all I can think about. About how, if I work really hard, maybe next week I'll be able to play well for five seconds. And then ten, and then twenty, and by the end of the session maybe as much as fifty, and fifty seconds is almost a shift, and from there…

Shajar, put the kettle on.

8 comments:

Ms. Conduct said...

:D Yep, I couldn't imagine, when my friend who got me into playing hockey told me she'd rather play than watch. But now I get it. Though as a goalie, sometimes I'm very happy to turn it over to the pros who don't make as much a mess of it as I do.

As a fellow non-athlete, I feel your pain AND your elation in those moments where it clicks and feels natural.

E said...

it occurs to me (after i put the post up, of course) that this might be a really gender-specific experience. i haven't met a lot of guys who never played in childhood and then took up the game in their mid-twenties, but it seems to be relatively common in women. probably the overwhelming mass of already-experienced men makes it prohibitively difficult for total newbie adult males to find places to play, to say nothing of the playfully dickish culture of guy-hockey.

sportsbabel said...

it might be gender-specific as concerns hockey, but certainly can apply to me trying a sport they never did while younger, and the broader point ("There is no book in the world so good that it could change you half as much as the shitty book you write yourself.") could apply to many people in many cultural/creative contexts.

anyways, thank you for this piece. :)

sportsbabel said...

me = men.

sportsbabel said...

i mean to say that "me" above should have read "men", not that i represent men.

(i'll stop typing now.)

sean said...

i haven't met a lot of guys who never played in childhood and then took up the game in their mid-twenties
I grew up in Alberta and in 26 years didn't learn much more than how to skate straight forward. Never played an actual game of hockey until I moved to Connecticut and joined a 'learn to play hockey' club. There was plenty of fear and embarrassment. First practice game I wiped out skating to an uncontested loose puck, giving up a breakaway goal - pretty much my worst case pregame hypothetical scenario. Now I'm 3 years in and I can't wait to get out every week. My favorite thing (besides playing) is seeing new people come in and play sometimg that looks like hockey for a few seconds longer than they did the week before.

Thanks for the post. Every bit of it rang true.

Wei Laoshi said...

keep going. practice makes perfect. having played since i was 4 i can say that i'm not a believer in innate talent in sports as being the main determining factor as to how good an athlete you are. i was a terrible player my first 2-3 years i played, the other kids would skate circles around me. 2-3 years later i was one of the best kids on my team and playing Atom AAA.

As for the number of guys who take up hockey in their mid-twenties, there are many more of them than you think. there's a fair few in the CIHL too! Two of my uncles took up hockey in their 20s or 30s after having never played as kids. I'd wager that about 30% of men's league/old-timer players started in their 20s or 30s. but i'm not a stats guy like u E, i could be wrong.

Taylor said...

Funny coincidence, just before reading this today I was lamenting the fact that my men's league game tonight will prevent me from watching my beloved Islanders live. Oh well. Maybe I'll pot a couple and come home to a DVR with a nice Islanders victory on it.