Friday, January 15, 2016

Teach My Feet to Fly

Happy New Year, everyone! I got out of the 2016 blocks strong, but need to remember this isn't a sprint. This week has been dominated by loss and celebration, as tributes poured out to those who passed like David Bowie, Amiri Baraka, Lois Weisberg, and Alan Rickman. All of these folks left their fingerprints on local and wold culture in their own way.

My friend Scott Smith and his wickedly talented staff at Touchvision is looking for work after the company ceased operations yesterday. Touchvision was one of the more unique media experiments in years, bringing a digital edge to broadcast journalism and they seemed have found their footing before the rug was pulled out from under them. Chicago media is a brutal business. But the rewards are often worth the risks; Touchvision did some wonderful work in its short time.

Personally, I've been busy re-acclimating myself to work after a two-week publishing holiday. Sundays have been reserved for slow cooker recipes. Time management is still a problemit hasn't affected my work output so far but it's something I want to remedy soon. The story I read at Tuesday Funk last week was well-received. (Actually, I killed and I never say that!) 

I've donned my layers and, with the weather finally feeling like winter around here, laced my skates at McKinley Park and the Maggie Daley Park ice ribbon for a few laps for the dual purpose of getting some exercise and to train for Hustle Up the Hancock next month. (Note: All participants raise money for the Respiratory Health Association. If you have a couple bits to spare, please consider pledging me.)

This will work as the segue. I love ice skating. As a sport and exercise, it holds my attention the way only bicycling has been able to over the years. But I'm still relatively new to it and this is the tale of how I taught myself to do so. I read a more personal version of this at Tuesday Funk a couple years ago, so I did some editing to update it.

Assumption of Risk and Release: "I am aware that ice skating involves inherent risks, dangers and hazards which can result in serious personal injury or death. I hereby freely assume and accept any and all known and unknown risks of injury while skating at this ice arena and release owner, its management company, their affiliates, subsidiaries, successors and assigns from any liability whatsoever from bodily injury or property damage resulting from negligent acts and omissions in the design, operation, supervision and maintenance of the ice arena."

This subtle yet ominous warning, cloaked in standard legalese, is the Chicago Park District’s (“the owner’s") way of saying it isn't culpable if I happen to slip, fall, crack my head open and bleed on any of their ice rinks. It’s wrapped around my wrist whenever I show my season pass for the Park District's outdoor rinks. So far, the worst that has happened is the frequent loss of wrist hair by whatever bored 15-year-old girl working the skate rental trailer catches them with the adhesive. Sometimes I'll look at the disclaimer on my wrist and imagine myself prone on the ice, face down in a pool of my own blood after a nasty fall, holding my arm up to remind the other teenagers in charge of maintaining the rink's safety I knew exactly what I signed up for.

I've always wanted to skate but, for myriad reasons, failed to take up the sport until my late 30s, and even then didn't take it seriously enough to work on actually being good at it. Lord knows I wanted to. My cousin Patrick and I used to go to Blackhawks games at Chicago Stadium when I was a teen and watch Troy Murray, Steve Larmer, and Doug Wilson put the puck into the net, Al Secord and Behn Wilson act as the enforcers on the ice and Murray Bannerman skate out to the Hawks' blue line to freeze a puck.

But the Blackhawk we were most engrossed by was Denis Savard, who was the best stick handler of any player of his time not named Wayne Gretzky and had beautiful skating skills that matched his guile on the ice. There’s one video on YouTube titled “Unbelieveable! Chicago Blackhawks Denis Savard” where he dances between and around four Edmonton Oilers players after stealing the puck before he faces the goalie and puts a wrist shot into the net. 

Denis Savard epitomized the 80s Blackhawks' “cold steel on ice” mentality and we would stand in the upper obstructed view levels of the original Madhouse on Madison, screaming “Holy Shit!” whenever Savard would pirouette on the ice and set up another scoring opportunity for himself and his teammates.

Pat was an avid hockey player, still plays in recreation leagues to this day and passed his love for hockey and skating to his three sons. In those simpler times, Pat taught me the basics of following a hockey game and at one point even said he would teach me to skate.

I wanted to skate like Savard so bad I could taste it. But my teen years were marked by anger, impatience and a being easily disenchanted when things didn't immediately go my way. Rather than pester Pat to teach me some skating basics, I instead dug out his brother Danny's skates from the family garage and walked across the street to Hermosa Park on the Northwest Side.

Every winter the park fieldhouse crew, led by a man named Ray, would ice down Hermosa’s softball fields so the neighbors could enjoy some skating without having to leave the neighborhood. The problem with these makeshift rinks was that Ray and his crew did this without the knowledge or consent of the Park District and they were often stoned when they would break out the firehoses to flood the field. The ice wasn’t a smooth surface for skating and instead resembled a series of rock-solid moguls—extreme skating before there ever was an X Games.

My choice of skates was also shortsighted. I assumed, since the skates were Danny’s and we were close in age, they would fit me perfectly. And they would have… if I were five years younger; I picked up Danny’s size eight skates. That didn’t stop me from fully removing the laces in an attempt to force the skates on my size 11 feet. I eventually worked up blisters and hammertoes that would rival a runway model’s. I took the skates and threw them, without laces, back into the garage.

My hockey fandom grew as I became an adult, but I never acted on my desire to learn to skate. Once, a group of friends arranged a New Year’s Eve skate at McFetridge Sports Center. I didn’t let my lack of skills stop me from renting skates, loosely tying them to my feet and proceeding to make a royal ass of myself. My ankles wobbled inside the skates like a teenage Taylor Swift wearing stiletto heels to an awards show. Tightening them made things worse and suddenly I vacillated between repeatedly bouncing my head off the ice and barreling into small children like a 250-pound bowling ball, an endless stream of profanities flowing from my mouth. To this day my friend Todd reminds me that was the first time we met and that he didn’t know what to make of me.

Subsequent excursions to other rinks fared just as bad, although I learned to be self-aware, stopped swearing on the ice and instead used the children to balance myself and pull me around the rink, like sled dogs in the Alaskan woods. It still frustrated me to no end that everyone would lap me twice on a rink in the time it took me to make a half lap.

So I vowed after skating season ended a few winters ago that I would truly, really, seriously, cross my heart and hope to die teach myself how to skate. Unlike my teen years, I had two things in my favor: the patience of a man in his mid-40s and the Internet. The former taught me not to be discouraged by the failures of my younger self; the latter showed me the lessons I never allowed Pat to share with me.

I went to Play It Again Sports and bought a used pair of Sher-Wood Raptor 2 hockey skates in silver with black toes, heels and trim. The kid who sold them to me and sharpened them said they looked like they were never worn, but I bet he says that to all the boys. When I wear them, they give the impression that my skills are much better than they are.

With my purchase in hand I took to YouTube to search for videos on learning how to skate. The videos near the top of my search all involved learning to fall properly and get back up again, which comes in handy when you lose your balance and is the difference between getting back up to skate again and spilling your blood on the ice.

The next videos in my queue dealt with ice skating basics, taught by some blonde kid in cargo shorts from Florida skating on synthetic ice, which kind of pissed me off. I felt if a bro on plastic ice can do this, I can certainly try dressed in layers on a Chicago rink.

It turned out that this video on ice skating basics wound up being the one I returned to whenever I needed a refresher on shifting my weight, getting my balance and proper hip and knee placement.

The rink closest to my Bridgeport apartment is at McKinley Park on the city's Southwest side. Located on Western Boulevard just south of Archer Avenue, it serves as a slice of tranquility amid the constant bustle of motor vehicle traffic 20 yards away. I like McKinley not only for the proximity to my home but because of the beautiful views. I can see the downtown skyline on a clear day, the CTA Orange Line and freight trains curve around Archer to Western, ferrying passengers to flight delays at Midway Airport and empty shipping containers to temporary homes. Lindy’s Chili is a short walk away for when I’m done and need to warm up. But the main reason I like this rink is because I can work on my skills away from prying eyes.

My first trip to McKinley Park in November 2012 was one to remember. There was a United Nations of languages on the ice: people speaking English, Spanish, Lithuanian, Italian, Polish, Chinese, crackhead and gangbanger. There were girls in hockey skates and boys in figure skates; parents teaching their preschoolers to march on the ice and fall properly; gaggles of teens taking group selfies and flirting with each other around the rink; and other adults like me just trying to find a groove. I may have been the only one with Joni Mitchell's voice in his head singing about wishing for a river to skate away on.

I managed to get around the rink five times in a 90-minute span—no falls or wipeouts; the flat arches of feet aching only slightly. A return to YouTube showed me how to lace my skates properly for ankle and arch support and the next week I was back at McKinley putting the pieces together again. A visit to Millennium Park's ice skating rink with my then-girlfriend, her roommate and a friend visiting from out of town showed me where I stood in my endeavors, as I finally gained a measure of smooth gliding by the time we exited the ice.

Flush with confidence during that skate, I returned to McKinley Park between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the rink packed with families marching along their merry way, which provided plenty of opportunity to avoid the errant missiles that are kindergartners on skates.

As soon as I stepped on the ice I could tell a difference. The lessons I watched and the trips to the rink were starting to pay dividends. I skated for the first time with confidence and made my way around the ice with ease. Two hours flew by before I knew it and I wanted to skate more. My subsequent trips to the rink found me growing even more secure with how I skate.

I've found parallels between my improved skating and other areas of self-improvement off the ice. There’s been progress. Sometimes it’s barely measurable. Other instances, like when I successfully negotiate a turn on the ice, the smile on my face is so wide I couldn’t hide it if I tried.

We should always strive to grow even when we feel we shouldn't. At 35 I decided to focus on the writing career I always wanted, and it took me ten years to finally feel comfortable I achieved that. Now I’m trying to find that ever-vital work/play balance without pushing away the people in my life I love the most.

We can always be better parents, children, bosses, partners or spouses. And while it's nice to work on myself for their benefit, I've embraced that I want to be a better person simply because I’m through with settling for “good enough.” Having patience, learning from your mistakes and simply being aware of the world around you provides a knowledge base when you arrive at the obstacles that pop up unexpectedly. In many ways, I’m teaching myself to fall properly and get back up away from the rink.

The future guarantees few absolutes (and those aren't fun) but working on my shortcomings now will allow me to better enjoy the present and future. I'll never skate like Denis Savard but I don't have to. And Joni Mitchell may have had it wrong when she sang of wishing for a river on which to skate away. You want to skate to something, even if that means going in circles around a rink on the Southwest Side to get there.