(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Feb. 20, 1997) — What is it that impels children toward ice? What unfathomable instinct makes them want to hurtle around on this most slippery and impossible of surfaces? More importantly, why did my wife buy our children ice skates and then leave for me the unenviable task of taking the kids to the rink for the very first time?
The urge to ice skate flies in the face of logic and a presumed instinct for self-preservation. On the ice, it is bitterly cold. Maneuvering is frustratingly difficult. The scenery is dull and you fall a lot. Then you hurt. All in all, it is a terribly uncomfortable manner of existence, being on ice, one that civilization — in the form of raised shelter, rubberized footwear, central heating and hot cocoa — has gone to great lengths to avoid.
For any sensible adult — a species of which if not for being a freelance writer and stay-at-home-dad I would count myself a member — skating is way too unpleasant and risky a venture even to contemplate, much less to undertake. I know a guy who badly shattered his leg last winter simply slipping on the ice while getting into his car. He now walks with a permanent limp. To knowingly strap metal blades to the bottom of one’s feet and to stumble onto the ice at my age would be an act of supreme stupidity possibly surpassed only by strapping on a pair of skis in order to hurtle down a mountainside. It’s the sort of eventuality asking to happen that insurance companies shouldn’t have to pay for when disaster accepts the engraved invitation.
But this isn’t about me. This is about my children, with their low centers of gravity, inexhaustibly boundless energy and fearlessness borne of an innocence of mortality. In other words, they are kids, they don’t know any better, and not wanting to be a spoilsport or killjoy, I bite my tongue, keep my reservations to myself and do my fatherly duty.
I take them skating.
I had not been to the rink for any length of time since my junior year in college, when out of sympathy and in a gesture of friendship toward my hockey-playing roommate — who had done the same for me at times, coming to hear me sing at a coffeehouse or act in a play — I went to a game with my other housemates to cheer on the home team and in particular our favorite son. Of course, out there on the ice, bundled up beneath a uniform and a face mask, I could never figure out which one was Eric. And I had about as much luck keeping track of the flat, round thing they were whacking with their sticks as I do following the path of that oblong pigskin in that other silly game college boys play.
I was reminded of all this last week when all these years later, I found myself once again at that same rink. Only this time the home team was my own kids, and I wasn’t about to take my eyes off them for one second. Their only previous experience on ice had been sliding around on frozen puddles in their snow boots. While this hasn’t exactly been a record-breaking winter for snowfall, the constant thaw-and-freeze of the last few weeks has created many faux ponds around town, and every time we pass one in the car the kids want to stop and slide around on them. Half the time — the times when my wife is driving, I should say — we let them.
So we are at the rink, where I am only slightly more comfortable being than in a gymnasium. And that’s only because a rink doesn’t have that disgusting, smelly-sock odor. A rink doesn’t have any odor, of course, because it’s too damn cold for even smells to survive in a rink.
The daughter, nearing age 6, can barely contain her unbridled enthusiasm, so I lace up her skates first. Even the mere act of lacing up your childrens’ skates is fraught with anxiety-inducing tension. You want to make the skates tight enough so that their ankles won’t easily buckle and sprain, yet you don’t want to make them so tight that you cut off the blood supply to the toes, thereby engendering frostbite. “How do they feel?” I ask, but the hastiness of the response, “Great,” bespeaks more the daughter’s eagerness to get on the ice than it reflects any realistic measure of her comfort.
Before I can utter a word of caution, the daughter is out on the ice, propelling herself forward with her unique, self-taught method which I vaguely recall from my own, brief-lived, ultimately unsuccessful trial as a young skater — skating on one foot, using the other only to push. The daughter, however, seems to enjoy falling a lot more than I remember ever doing, which is only coincidentally why, when my kids skate, they go equipped with one extra accessory: bicycle helmets.
They are quite a sight, these bubble-headed urchins. The son, not much more than a small bundle of snowsuit at almost-four, is lost in his helmet, which dwarfs his head. It sits atop him as much to remind him — a sort of unspoken “be careful,” words which I won’t utter for the duration of the skate — as to protect his head from any accidental meeting with the ice.
While I could have predicted that the daughter would want or need no coaching or hand-holding — that she would instantly embrace the ice as another long-lost, native habitat in the same manner that she has alternately embraced the dance studio, the seat of her bicycle and the grassy knoll across the driveway — the son was an altogether different story. There was no way of knowing how he would react once his skates were on and he was pointed toward the rink. There was no guarantee that he would not insist, silently or otherwise, that his father join him, skates or no skates, on the glassy surface, hand-in- hand, like father, like son.
This, of course, was my great fear, for had he so demanded, I would have had to oblige, throwing all caution to the wind, risking my life, limb and my wife’s free child-care provider all for the sake of saving face before the hungering, needy eyes of my inscrutable son.
Fortunately, my resolve and that of the son’s was never tested, thanks to Zamboni, whoever he was. The kids had seen one in operation on a previous visit to to a figure-skating show — did I mention that unfortunate lapse of judgment on my wife’s part? what was she thinking when she took them there? how does she think Tonya Harding got started? — and the Zamboni was a big hit, especially with the mechanical-minded, enamored-of-all-moving-vehicles son. He didn’t just LIKE the Zamboni, he WAS the Zamboni. There he goes out on the ice, pushing along his jerry-rigged support made out of two milk crates, one on top of the other, bungeed together. Not only does it serve as a balance, but pushing it along the ice produces snow-like shavings similar to those carved out of the surface by the Zamboni. Such is the greatest of pleasures when Thomas the Tank Engine is your nirvana or your Nirvana. Meanwhile, the daughter is unstoppable in spite of her clunky method, her prime motivation being to execute the moves of an ice dancer — jetes, arabesques, plies — she has brought here from ballet class.
They skate for an hour, during which time dad stands gazing dumbfoundedly at how these creatures who are half him could be so utterly unlike him. Their mom, though a lot more adventurous in practice and in spirit, isn’t exactly Jackie Joyner-Kersee, either, although she did date a hockey player — not the roommate — in college.
In the end, in spite of the hereditary dissonance on display, this is all deeply reassuring. In fact it is a great relief to see that my children are moved to do ridiculous things like ice-skating in spite of their father, and that my limited access to the world of sports and recreation has not left an indelible imprint on them. If that were the case — if they seemed more like me, more hesitant, more inclined to stare out the window at the snow than to engage it as the object of their play — I would feel more pressure to act as a positive role model, however secretly unwilling, and to do things against my nature in an effort to instill in my children a more well- rounded approach to life than the one I naturally possess. That of course would be a recipe for even greater disaster, for they would undoubtedly sense my discomfort and ambivalence, which would only make things more confusing for them in the end. To say nothing of the inevitable and costly therapy fees I would have to cover.
So unlike those who get right out on the ice with their children, holding their hands or pushing them along with their fake Zambonis, I remain aloof. I am with my children as an audience, a reassuring presence, an emergency crew on standby and a safety monitor. But the activity is theirs and theirs alone, and in owning it to the exclusion of their father — and, incidentally, also to the exclusion of their more-willing mother — they undoubtedly are tasting the first bites of what it means to be independent, self-reliant and truly free. They are skating under their own power, within their own frameworks, and with their own chosen methods. This is undoubtedly what impels them toward the ice. They are going where they want to go — where their father cannot and will not go — to their ultimate destination. They are skating toward adulthood. And I’m not even on the ice.[This essay originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Feb. 20, 1997. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1997. All rights reserved.]