Virginia Woolf once said, and I’m paraphrasing because I’m not looking this shit up, that simply living life, living a single day, is a risk, a violent and dangerous act. Judging from her end, it seems that, to her, the risk was too much.
This is a portentious and somber way of introducing an article about watching my eight-year-old at ice skating lessons. She wanted to try them, she asked us to try them, and without knowing anyone or anything ice-skating-related, she laces up every Wednesday and looks like a complete idiot and loves every minute of it.
I can’t even take her to the lessons without first casing the situation like Robert DeNiro in Heat. Where do I park? The garage? Do I have to pay? Who else is there? Do I have to talk to them? Where do I sit? Is it cold? Really? Fahrenheit or Celsius? Should I wear a sweater? Cardigan or pullover? Can I bring a book? A magazine? How distracted will I be and how does that relate to the difficulty of said book and/or magazine?
My daughter doesn’t even wear gloves. She has to be reminded to wear friggin’ socks.
I’ve gotten better about my reticence to try new things. I used to pray for rain so I wouldn’t have to play baseball. I’d ask my mom to give me an excuse so I wouldn’t have to go play at a friend’s house. How did I get married? How did I ever have sex?
If it was up to me, I would know, to the minute, what each day brought.
Not that I don’t do anything; I just don’t plan anything. What if it doesn’t work out? What if I make plans and they’re shot to shit? Isn’t better to just stay at home? Nothing good happens from ambition. Ambition leads to failure.
But I’ve gotten better. I was in a musical. I’m on a charity board for the local library. I sing in a community choir. Holy shit that sounds pathetic when I write it down.
Mostly, the “risks” I’ve taken have been foisted upon me by others. I became a licensed minister because a couple I knew asked me to perform their wedding, and I was drunk and figured what the hell. “What the hell” are the three scariest and most dangerous words in the English language. I’ve since learned that when I think those three words that it’s time for a bath and a nap.
I have to be comfortable in a situation before I’ll consent. I have to know I can do it. I have to know that I’ll be good. I have to know that I’ll win. I don’t even play video games lest they are set to the easiest level and I’ve jacked my abilities to a Gandalfian plateau.
But my middle daughter just does it. Looks silly. She’s running for class officer as I write this, making the posters.
I sat away from the other parents at the rink, and if at first I was impressed that they let the kids practice on the Redhawks’ ice (you’d never see a college football program allow a soccer or lacrosse camp—even a bantam football camp—on the game field) I soon realized that it was probably the only space available for the mayhem I witnessed.
At the far left, toddlers in skates better suited to dolls waddled and scooted about on their diapered asses with no real instruction. It was more like practice for being cold. On the far right, accomplished grade school hockey players skated through and around pylons while a club player shouted things like “Get your stick up!” or “Guide it, don’t slap it!”
Between the two extremes was my daughter and those at her skill level, a bunch of seven- and eight-year-olds wind-milling and sliding from board-to-board as per the instructor’s whistle. My daughter skated like she did everything else, as if she were an architect’s lamp being dragged down a rutty path by a four-wheeler. Every so often, she would look up and wave, almost fall, and in a flurry of elbows and knees, barely right herself before wiping out.
Several of her classmates did not so much as skate as tumble from one side of the ice to the other. They’d go down like their was a sniper in the eaves of the arena, or a particularly cruel god kept cranking the gravity dial to “11” and then back to normal, watching them collapse like an unused thumb puppet. They would almost reach the side, reaching for it, only three feet away, then ball up like an armadillo as the rest of the class, who’d already reached the boards, would turn and skate directly at them.
I realized that this would be the group I would be consigned to, if I signed up for skating lessons. Then I noticed that one of the skaters, a tall blond in an Alex Ovechkin jersey, was clearly two feet taller and seven years older than all the rest in the group. He’d stand with the rest like Chewbacca at the end of Star Wars, and when called upon to skate, would dutifully fishtail and spasm with the rest until completing his allotted lap.
My first instinct, as always, was to laugh and mock. What bet had he lost? He did not seem very happy to be there. Had his parents signed him up, embarrassed at his lack of grace? Was he a son of transplanted Canadian academics who were embarrassed that their progeny could not do what everyone believes Canadians should? Is that a thing? Like being from Long Beach but being afraid of the ocean? Was he in love with a figure skater?
But as I watched, the more I grew to admire the kid. Here was a boy who, forced or not, was not going to let the fear of embarrassment stop him from trying something new. I imagine he wagered that there would be kids his age. If so, good for him for keeping up with the lessons. If he knew what he was getting into, then all the more propers, because I sure as hell wouldn’t’ve been out there if I was his age.
The only time I ever took a lesson in something similar was when my mother made me take swimming classes at the local Y. She told me that if I went to every lesson for six weeks—I was terrified of water and still don’t like it much—then she would go to the Audobon Reserve and pet a snake, of which she was deathly afraid. I cried to, during, and from every lesson. I never took my feet off the pool floor. I never learned a stroke. But I went. And when we went to the Reserve, my mom took one look at the snake, dug into her purse, came out with a crisp twenty which she handed to me, and hustled me back to the car.
So maybe it runs in the family, and maybe it’s all too common. It’s been said that public speaking is a more profound fear for people than death, which I see as an outlandish assertion, even if true. I think the truth is that we fear uncertainty; we fear embarrassment. I want to know what will happen before it happens. I’d rather have done something than do something. It’s never as bad as it seems it will be.
But it could be. It damn well could be.
So as I watched little Ovechkin and my daughter skitter up and down the ice, I made it a point to try and embrace uncertainty. After all, people who are certain all the time are either buffoons or inherently dangerous, and the quest to be certain is the quest to catch your own shadow. The only guy to do that was Peter Pan, the most unquestionably certain of all fictional characters, and he was a sociopath.
So I will take risks. I will learn something from my kid rather than try to teach her something, for once. I will say “What the hell.”
But first I need a bath and a nap.