Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ninety-Four, Part Fifteen: Wherein (SPOILER ALERT!) I Never Actually Tell You About The Day I Went Rollerblading (Although I Mention Other Days...)

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part 15; click here for a table of contents.

I wanted to do this in chronological order. That seemed to me to be the way to do a memoir – in the order in which things happened.

But my memory doesn’t work that way. My memory does not bother to remember things by when they happened, or at least I can’t recall them that way.

So let me tell you instead about a time I went rollerblading in Washington, D.C.

I’d been there about two or three months at that point, and the weather was getting nice – although not as nice as I’d like. Washington in the spring is not very warm, not by my standards. My standards of warmth are very high. You’d expect that someone born and raised in Wisconsin would be used to the cold and used to snow and would maybe even enjoy the snow and the cold, but I am not used to the cold and I don’t enjoy it.

I did once enjoy winter, as a kid, I guess. At least, I don’t recall hating winter as a kid. As a kid, I was outside during the winter quite a bit, it seems in my memory. I can remember hockey games on the frozen swamp, and snowball fights, and sledding, and ice skating, and more sledding, and building snowmen and snowforts, and lots and lots of snow shoveling (which wouldn’t qualify as “fun” or “enjoying” winter, but I do have recollections of them, so I’ll throw them in here.)

One problem with those recollections is, again, they’re not in chronological order. In my memory, almost every one of the winter memories I have seems to take place during the same calendar year. It’s almost as though in my childhood I was subject to the cartoon laws of time, not the real laws of time.

By that I mean that in cartoons, people never age. If you watch The Simpsons or King of the Hill or any of those shows, then you know that time seems to continuously loop back on itself in an ouroborian manner: people keep moving forward in time but never get anywhere. The school year progresses, the seasons progress, Christmas occurs every year over and over – but the people stay in the same grade and at the same job and at the same age. Homer Simpson should be about 60 by now, but he’s still in his late 30s or early 40s. Bobby Hill should have graduated high school, but hasn’t.

So kids in cartoons live in a world that has time, but the time they experience doesn’t march straight forward; it loops back on itself in a Modest-Mousian manner: If you go straight long enough you end up where you were, and so cartoons do. Every single thing that’s ever happened to Bart Simpson has happened, more or less, in the same year of his life. So it is with my life, too: I recall a great many things from my childhood and they all seemed to happen in the same year.

I remember, for example, breaking my wrist sledding. I know intellectually that I broke my wrist when sledding in either the 7th or 8th grade (and it bothers me a little that I no longer can decide whether that happened in the 7th, or the 8th, grade. I don’t like to think of my memory as being vague and shifty. I would like to be certain about what happened to me, even if I’m wrong in my certainty, I suppose.)

I also remember a year when the snowdrifts were very large; we’d gotten a lot of snow and the drifts at the end of the driveways were immense, even more so because that was where all the snow we were always shoveling off the drive was piled. That year, we dug into the snowbanks and made snowforts, one on each side of the driveway. From those snowforts, we would throw snowballs at each other, and at cars that drove by. On one occasion, we hit a car—hard—and the driver stopped and got out and tried to figure out where the snowball had come from.

I also remember a snowball fight with my cousin, Joey (who, grown-up now and living in Arizona, is called just “Joe.”) I hit Joey with an iceball. I hadn’t intended to; I’d just had the snowball in my hand long enough for it to turn to ice. The iceball had cut Joey’s cheek and we had to end the snowball fight.

And I remember cross-country skiing in the field behind my house, with my walkman on, listening to “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds. That song, according to Google, was released in 1985, when I was 16 and would have been a sophomore or junior in high school.

All of those things, though, took place, in my mind, in the same year, when I was the same, indeterminate, age. In my memory, I am the same age when I’m hitting my cousin with an iceball, when I’m cross-country skiing, when I’m sledding, when I’m doing all of the outdoor things I did as a child. I had a vibrant, active life in my childhood, but it was all at one time.

None of those outdoor activities resulted in an adult that liked being outdoors in the winter, or enjoyed the cold weather, and by the time I went to Washington, I loathed the cold. That year in Wisconsin we had temperatures that had gone down to 80 degrees below zero, but even that did not inure me to cold weather, and so I found the cold spring in Washington in 1994 to be insufferable and was relieved when the days finally grew warm enough that I could go outside wearing just a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. On one fo the first of those days, I decided I would go rollerblading.

I used to rollerblade, as unlikely as that seems to people who know me. I took it up as an alternative to jogging, doing so years before I would really need an alternative to jogging. At the time, I was just looking for an exercise to do that was like jogging but wasn’t quite jogging, so that on those days I didn’t go for a run, I could exercise and feel like I’d gone for a run. I began rollerblading around the same time I began trying to get into shape, in 1993, before going to Washington. I bought a pair of rollerblades, somehow; I must have saved money for quite some time to do that because rollerblades then were expensive.

I don’t know what they cost now because I no longer rollerblade; I gave it up shortly after going to law school. I stopped rollerblading for the same reason that I had begun rollerblading less and less frequently, and that reason was: because rollerblading is scary.

It is for me, at least. I never felt in control when I was rolling along on those wheels. I never felt balanced, I never felt at ease, and mostly I never felt as though I could stop.

Stopping is a skill that is absolutely necessary to master if you want to engage in any sport that involves a wheel. Biking, skating, skateboarding: to do those, most people focus on the part that involved moving. They should focus on the part that involves stopping.

Stopping is something that’s always been on my mind when I engage in a rolling activity, mostly because for some reason, I’ve almost never had a bike that had a working set of brakes. When I was a kid and had the kind of bike that kids have – a pseudo-dirt-bike with only one speed and a banana seat – I could stop my bike because I just had to pedal backwards to put on the “brakes.” But when I graduated to more complicated bikes like 10-speeds, the brakes got more complicated and had cables and pads and grips and things, and I became unable to use them. My brakes never worked, on any bike I’ve ever owned, ever. I have a bike at home, right now, a very expensive bike given to me by Sweetie and the kids about 8 years ago, and the brakes don’t work on it. They never have.

With every bike I’ve owned that had the kind of brakes on which you squeeze a lever and the brakes tighten or loosen, the brakes inevitably haven’t gripped well enough to actually stop (or even slow) the bike, or, they’ve gripped too well, braking the bike when I’m trying to ride, slowing me down. With the former, I simply had no brakes. With the latter, I’ve had to go loosen the brakes to get the tires to be able to roll, resulting in my having no brakes again.

I even took my bike to a bike shop once for a tune-up, and, when I got it back, the brakes gripped too tightly and slowed me down, so I had to loosen them up and had no brakes again.

That lifetime of non-braking bikes didn’t give me any real skill in stopping; it gave me a lot of skill in judging how long before inertia would slow me down, or in dragging my feet, and it taught me to watch the road ahead very closely, but it didn’t teach me how to stop.

Skateboarding taught me how not to stop. I only really tried skateboarding once – it was during the year I recall of my childhood, that indeterminate year when I was about 12, and I was at my cousin Joey’s house. We decided to skateboard down the steep hill in front of his house, and I went first. I made it about halfway down the road before losing control and hitting a rock and flying headlong off the board, rolling head-over-heels into the gravel and scraping myself up. I assumed I would die of injuries; my aunt determined they were just scratches and sent us back out to play.

Rollerblades, I thought, might be different because unlike the bikes I’d owned and the skateboard I’d owned, rollerblades appeared to have brakes that simply couldn’t malfunction – that little rubber stopper at the back of one boot. It’s a great, simple idea that would be the height of genius if it actually did anything, but it doesn’t. Dragging that little rubber stopper didn’t ever help slow me down when I rollerbladed, and I was continuously rolling into people, or the grass, or the gravel, to stop. I think the problem was that the brake only worked if you could find a way to stay upright on the rollerblades while also leaning back enough to tilt your heel into the ground, and that was too tricky for me. I had all I could do to stand up.

In fact, the only effective way I ever found to really stop rollerblading, and quickly, was hit hot tar on a road. I found that out the hard way, as you’d expect: I was rollerblading on summer day in Milwaukee, (this would have been in 1995), not for exercise so much as to just kill time and alleviate some nervousness I had. I was nervous because that night was opening night in a play that I had a role in – an actual play being actually put on in a theater on a stage before actual audiences.

I’d gotten a role in that play more or less by chance. I had extra time that summer, being kind of underemployed and waiting to move to Madison to go to law school, and one morning I’d woken up and thought “I should try out for a play. My acting experience up to that time had been to play “Lord Growlie” in The Wizard of Oz in 6th grade (and also be a backup Munckin in the Lollipop Guild—the largest, fattest Munchkin ever) and to play the Innkeeper in Annie Get Your Gun in 8th grade. But I decided, that summer (of 1995, remember) to try to get a role in a play, for no particular reason other than I didn’t have a television and I needed something to do.

So I memorized a Shakespearean monologue—you never know when that will come in handy—and began going to auditions. Like my original trip to Washington and then Morocco, this was dealt with by my family and friends with some skepticism; there were lots of comments like “Why are you doing that?” and “Uh-huh. Whatever.” And the like. I think, much like my actual trips the year before, my family was stunned when I announced that I’d gotten a part, that I was going to be in a play and they were expected to attend.

The part I got was a dual role in a play called “Brother Truckers,” a spoof play about some murderous garbage men. The director made it a gender-bending kind of play in which the male parts were played by women and the female parts by men, mostly. My roles were a nonspeaking role as “The Maid” (for which I had to ham it up a bit in a French maid costume) and a speaking role in the final Act as “The Prosecutor.” Neither was a lead role, but they were pretty big roles anyway.

On the day of Opening Night, I was nervous and so to burn off some nervous energy I went rollerblading, cruising around the rich folks’ neighborhood near where I lived because the streets were wide and smooth and tree-lined and rarely-trafficked during the day.

I was about a mile from my house and heading down a long, gentle slope when it happened: I was getting some speed up and starting to get concerned because I didn’t like to go fast, and starting to try to figure out what grassy area I should roll into when suddenly my right leg stopped dead as though grabbed by a hand. I flung forward then and hit the ground on my right side and skidded a considerable distance before stopping.

Dazed, I tried to figure out what was injured and what had happened. I had deep scrapes on my face, all down my right arm from the shoulder to the wrist, and on my side and then down my right thigh and calf, scrapes that were bleeding profusely and which had little stones and black junk embedded in them and which already hurt; it was like someone had peeled my right side.

On my right rollerblade, each of the wheels had a gob of black tar on them and looking back along my route, I saw a freshly-laid patch of asphalt in the middle of the road, sealing a crack or something, with a rut down the middle where my right wheels had gone and dug in and then thrown me.

I had to walk home – in my socks, carrying my rollerblades, bleeding—almost a mile, where I cleaned up and rested before Opening Night – and then I had to act on stage in my first play as an adult, dramatically feather-dusting things and pointing my finger and accusing garbagemen of murder, all while wincing in pain as the scabs that lined my right side hurt and hurt and hurt.

We got good reviews for that play. And none of them said anything like “The Prosecutor appeared to be very uncoordinated and also to have sustained some injuries from rollerblading.”

That wipeout, and the play I was in, were more than a year in the future on the day I set out to rollerblade around Washington, D.C., and so I wasn’t yet unduly scared of hurting myself by rolling, uncontrollably, around the nation’s capital. Nor was I concerned, when I set out, that I didn’t really know my way around, and I didn’t pay any attention to the fact that I had no idea whether Washington would be a good, or bad, place to roller blade. I just knew that the weather, finally, was kind of warm, and that I wanted to rollerblade that day, and I wanted to see some sights.

So I strapped on the skates and set off.

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